"We have obtained a boy for you."
"What would I do with a boy, father?" asked Rafiq. He looked out over the balcony at the city. The sparkling Tigris flowed by far below, crisscrossed by the drifting wakes of traders' boats.
At the lunch table, his father carved off another piece of roasted mutton; some things he enjoyed too much to let a slave do for him. "What does any man do with a boy? Whatever you want."
"Having boys to do whatever I want has never been a problem for me. I don't need to own one."
"Ya Allah." Hamal rolled his eyes with contempt. "You mean those street rats that you keep about your heels? You embarrass yourself with them." The old man paused for a sip of wine. "Not to mention your mother and I."
"Send the boy back. Or give him new duti-"
"Will you sit down!" His father pointed the carving knife at the cushion opposite his. "The river is not going anywhere. You can stop watching over it long enough to eat your meal like a civilized man."
Rafiq sat. He pecked at a few dried fruits. Then he tried the wine. Like all liquor it was contraband and, therefore, expensive, but the flavor was excellent and well worth the price. "I'm expecting Dawood today," he said. "He has a shipment of perfumes and carpets."
Hamal looked up from his meal. "What price are you expecting to pay for the perfumes? The last time you overpaid by half- Sometimes I cannot believe you have my blood in you."
They drifted into business for a few minutes, talking of caravans and the prices for oil and dates and slaves even. In their world everything had a price--even the desert sand. But, as usual, Rafiq could not keep focused on numbers. Commerce bored him. His real interest in The Silver Moon, Dawood's ship, was in the tales of the voyage and the lands visited and the people there. Even the magnificent spires of Baghdad, greatest city in history, could not keep him from thinking about the world beyond.
"I'm leaving for Basorrah in two days," he told his father.
"No further." Further meant paying too high a penalty for Rafiq. They ate in silence, one heartily, the other in spurts of resentment.
"Send the boy back," Rafiq said. "Or make him a kitchen helper. I don't care-"
"Send him back?!" Hamal said. "A trained bed-slave of the Kalifa himself, given as a personal present? I'd sooner give you away. In fact, now that I think of it that may-"
"The Kalifa? But, I never asked him for a boy. I never asked him for anyth-" Rafiq slapped his forehead in realization. "Mother. This is her doing."
"Indeed. What is the use of being the cousin of a great man if you cannot steer his gratitude in beneficial directions?"
"Oh yes. He was most impressed with the way you sorted that matter with the Ethiopian and the dock-men. You saved him the need to intervene directly."
Rafiq stood silent, grinding his teeth.
His father sat back and bit into a honey-covered sweet. "Not even you, my hard-headed son, would dare refuse a gift from the Kalifa." He licked a drip of honey off his top lip and smiled.
Rafiq was still fuming at the beginning of supper, held in the main courtyard by family custom. In a corner, he caught sight of Nayad, his father's boy. The youngster was coming out of the kitchen with a bowl of food. He smiled when he saw Rafiq, then recovered his self- control and approached the table in somberness.
Nayad was a virgin. Hamal's tastes did not run to boys. His wives were all large-bosomed, wide-hipped women with meaty arms, and he exhausted his libido on them. The fair-haired boy was just for show, something he owned because it was expected of a man in his position, like the ornate carvings of Quranic passages in the walls near the main door. Hamal had paid the price of ten camels to have Nayad imported from the Balkans. Yet, the most he ever taxed the boy with was serving food when Hamal wanted to impress visitors with his white slaveboy.
Rafiq patted the carpet beside him and Nayad accepted the invitation to sit. The boy suppressed a giggle when Rafiq playfully poked his side with a thumb, biting his red lips and squirming.
"Behave yourselves." Shaira, Rafiq's mother, walked past behind them, shaking her head in disapproval.
"Peace be with you, mother," said Rafiq, sincerely.
She did not reply as she sat to the right of her husband. After surveying the seated family, she nodded to Hamal and he cupped his hands, leading the family in prayer. Normally, the evening meal in the house of a man like Hamal was an all-male affair. But Shaira had no time for that. While the other women ate in separate quarters, she sat with her husband, night after night. It had always been so. Sometimes she brought along one of the other wives, or daughters-in- law, but tonight she was alone.
When the prayer was over, Rafiq, his six brothers and two young uncles began eating.
"You really must learn to observe the decorum of the evening meal," Shaira said to Rafiq. "The prophet, on whom be peace, taught us this."
"No. He said that mealtime discussion should be serious. Not joyless."
"And how can we be serious when you're instigating childish behavior?"
Rafiq shifted his posture to ever-so-slightly shield Nayad from his mother. "I find childish behavior to be quite appropriate in a child."
"Then let it originate with him, not with you, a grown man." She continued almost under her breath as she watched a servant spoon food into her plate, "Maybe if you started with a small thing like that, you could start taking on some of the responsibility you owe this family, like helping with the traders."
Rafiq ate silently, occasionally ruffling Nayad's soft hair. His older brothers and his father talked about city matters: new construction, imams vying for influence, beggars, soldiers and, always, traders.
A short time later, small, scampering feet interrupted the after-meal conversation.
"The boat is here," said Talib, breathlessly sliding to a stop at Rafiq's side. He was a dust-coated boy with hyperactive golden-green eyes that went well with his golden hoop earrings.
"Tell Kasim to get a horse ready. I'll meet you at the stables."
The boy broke into a strong-toothed grin and ran off.
Rafiq did not make the mistake of abruptly leaving. His father would never tolerate such rudeness. Instead, he calmly finished his meal and waited for the others to do so.
Just after he took his leave and set off for the archway leading out of the courtyard, his mother approached him.
"That riverside ruffian is supposed to stay at the front door. You told me that he understood that."
"I'm sorry, mother. Talib's just excited about the boat. He forgot."
"You keep telling me he's clever. Surely a clever boy-"
"He is. He is. It's because of his boldness and charm that I was able to get the Ethiopian to trust me in that little dispute last month." Rafiq decided not to mention the boy's keen lust for large black men.
"Just make sure he knows his place."
"Very well." Rafiq kissed his mother on the forehead. "Peace be with you."
"Did your father tell you about the boy?"
"You know he did."
"Well, I think you-"
"I'll deal with him tomorrow, mother. Just put him someplace comfortable for tonight - where he won't be alone in the dark."
His new boy was asleep in Rafiq's low bed when he returned at midnight. There were only two torches lit, by the doorway, so Rafiq could not tell much except that the boy was slim and dark. And tired: The small shape did not stir at all as Rafiq threw off his outer clothes and eased into the bed. The man had a hard time sleeping, unable to stop wondering about the strange boy lying next to him, a boy who was now an irrevocable part of his life. He considered calling for Kasim to take the boy away to his quarters, but decided not to disturb the child.
When the man awoke just before dawn, the youngster was breathing deeply, his head on the man's shoulder and an arm across his bare chest. The man's hand was resting inside the smooth curve of the boy's back. Rafiq carefully slid out from under the boy in the darkness. He prayed on a rug at his bedside instead of going to the mosque, then he watched the sun rise. His room faced the river, of course, and the waterway came to life as the sun edged above it. Rafiq stood by his arched window and watched the boats and carts and people as light spread over the world.
As his bedroom brightened, he turned to watch the pyjama-clad boy sleeping there. He seemed to be about ten. His black hair was just a bit shaggy, with a slight curl. The boy's skin was dark. Darker than an Arab's. 'He must be from the eastern lands beyond Persia,' Rafiq thought.
Then the boy awoke and Rafiq found himself looking into dark, gentle eyes. It took the boy a while to realize who Rafiq was, but then he quickly scrambled to all fours and bowed.
"Peace be with you, Master."
Before he even understood where his anger came from, Rafiq had pulled the boy up and pushed him back onto the bed. He waved his finger at the disoriented boy and said, "Bow to no man! Only Allah is worthy of worship and He is your only master. Never call me that."
After a pause, the boy asked, "You are not Rafiq?"
"Yes, I am Rafiq, but-"
"Then you are my master!" said the boy happily. "I was-"
"I said don't call me that!
The boy finally seemed to comprehend Rafiq's anger. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm supposed to-"
Just then Kasim entered, the big man with his big scimitar at his side. The boy seemed truly terrified.
Kasim said, "I can return at another time if you wish."
"No, I'm hungry now. Bring the food."
Kasim stepped outside and returned with a platter of fruits and bread. He placed them on a small table surrounded by cushions.
"Eat," Rafiq told the still-stunned boy. While the boy tentatively plucked at some grapes, Rafiq had a quiet word in Kasim's ear: "Last night just as I arrived at the stables..."
"I saw you and Talib scrambling to look respectable. I didn't say anything right then, because I wanted to spare him the embarrassment, but you really must be more cautious about where you play. You know how my mother is about him."
"Thank you. I understand."
Rafiq sat opposite the boy at the table. "So, my young friend," he said, trying hard to be friendly, "do you have a name?"
"I am Aza."
Rafiq chuckled. "They certainly do know how to pick names at the palace."
"My mother named me. She said I healed her heart after my father's death."
"Oh." Rafiq quickly bit into a piece of buttered bread to buy time. He decided he had already blundered, so he might as well be direct. "Your father died before you were born?"
"He was a porter on a caravan that was attacked by bandits. He killed three men defending his master's cargo."
"And your mother?" Rafiq decided to press his opportunity. "What of her?"
"She is a kitchen maid in the service of Governor Abdul Kadir of Zahedan."
"That is a long way from here."
"Yes. A few years ago, a slaver saw me while I worked in the Sheikh's garden and he offered to buy me. The Governor needed money because he always has to pay soldiers and buy weapons, so he took the money and sent me off with the slaver."
"Just like that?"
Rafiq listened for any distress under Aza's calm, almost narrative style. There was none.
"Just like that. My mother had time to pack me a bundle of clothes and then the slaver took me. I got sold up the line a few times and then I ended up at the Kalifa's Palace to be trained."
"Have you sent word to your mother?"
"At first I could only send messages with traders, hoping that they would seek her out, but once I got to the palace I had access to the royal messengers. Some would help you if you just spoke nicely to them. Others needed you to pay them. But, yes, I was able to exchange messages with my mother."
"Well," said Rafiq, "we shall have to make sure that continues. Do you read and write?"
"Yes. I worked very hard on my calligraphy during my training."
"I have friends who trade in Zahedan. They will carry messages if I ask them. Maybe when my own caravan goes there, I can send you along for a visit."
The boy froze. He tapped the fingertips of one hand with the other, staring fixedly at them. Aza's throat moved as if wanting to speak, but no words came out. He seemed fearful.
"You don't seem to approve of Abdul Kadir's wars," said Rafiq, trying a new track.
Instantly, the boy was back to normal. "The Governor fancies himself a warrior. He wants to be Alexander finishing the conquest of India, but he can barely mount a horse. I sometimes-" Aza looked about, realizing that he was being too free with his opinion.
"You are safe here. Nothing you tell me in confidence will leave my lips. You can be honest with me."
"Yes, maste- Yes. I will be honest with you." The boy sounded stoic rather than sure.
"Only if you want to be."
"Do you like ships?"
"Yes. Big wooden things. Float on the water. Carry you off the edge of the world?"
"I have no experience with them."
"We'll have to-"
"Except once. I came to Baghdad on a ship. I did not see much because I was lying down the whole way. The motion of the boat made me sick." Aza looked apprehensively at Rafiq. "Are we to go on a ship?"
"Maybe," said Rafiq, thinking that Aza's usefulness would be severly limited by his seasickness.
"That's not from Eastern Khorasan." The certain tone of one with knowledge of the way things were. No arrogance in the voice-- respect, in fact: just a presentation of truth. Aza continued, "They would have achieved a much more even coloring in a rug that small. Also, the wool is too coarse to be Khorasanian."
"What are you talking about?" said Dawood, scornfully. "I got these from the most honest dealer on the eastern coast."
They were on The Silver Moon, examining some of the finer items Dawood had obtained on his journey. It was a test of sorts and Rafiq watched Aza to see if the minimal motion of the docked ship would upset him. It did not seem to. The boy's soft, full lips were pressed tight against each other as he reconsidered his verdict.
"He made a mistake then," said Aza. "He may be honest, but he did not know what to look for."
"He made a mistake? He's been trading carpets his whole life. You're a boy. A slaveboy at that. But, he made a mistake."
Dawood seemed to pick up the stiffening of Rafiq's back and took a deep breath. He was a young captain, after all, only now making his way, and he could not afford to upset a client.
"Are you sure?" Dawood asked Aza, holding the rug in his hands like a dead pigeon.
The man tossed the rug aside in disgust.
"It's still very good work, though," said Aza in a small voice. "Still valuable."
"I feel like a pig turd," said Dawood to Rafiq. "I need a good stiff drink. Good thing Yusuf is having his son's walima tonight."
"I've been trying to find a reason not to go," said Rafiq. "Allah knows what a lout that boy is."
"It will not be as bad as you make out, Rafiq. The food will be of the finest in Baghdad and the wine will be served by the softest-eyed girls.
"And boys, too, of course," Dawood added. "You must come with me. Both of you. We'll take the skiff over to his estate after Isha. What do you say?"
"I say that I'll see you here after prayers, then."
After they left the ship to go home for their noonday meal, Rafiq turned to Aza and said, "Are you fine?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"He was somewhat harsh with you."
"I am a slave. It is not my place to object to my treatment."
"You're still a person," said Rafiq. He said no more, hoping the boy would take time to digest the simple idea of his humanity.
After a few minutes stroll towards home, Aza said, "I was right, you know."
"I grew up in Khorasan. I know what a Khorasanian rug looks like."
With an arm around his shoulders, Rafiq pulled Aza to his side as they walked.
"I was right," said the boy almost to himself.
Rafiq slipped off his robe and climbed into the large, cool tub of water. He made no effort to clean himself, just soaked up the wetness, slouching until his nose was covered then rising slightly to breathe.
The world could not reach him here. No agenda but his own mattered here. And the only thing he wanted was half an hour of peace and isolation. Still, he could not help thinking of his Aza problem. The boy was beautiful, graceful, and possessed an intelligent, though vulnerable, integrity. Everything he wanted in a boy, if he were to be honest with himself. Except this boy was a slave. Rafiq would have to keep him at arm's length.
Rafiq quickly dunked his head into the water. He was wasting his bath. Time to drift away from Aza and trading and family and just be.
Small, deft hands stroked over Rafiq's shoulders and down his chest.
He whirled to find Aza there, leaning forward as if caught stealing.
"What in the name of Shaitan are you doing here?" Rafiq yelled. "Get out!"
"But, my duties-"
"I want nothing like that from you. Or any other slave. You are never to come in here, you understand? Never!"
"It is only-"
"Get out before I whip you raw!"
The boy's legs seemed to know they should be moving, but the rest of his small body was bowed and paralyzed. He started sniffling and tears began leaking down.
"Aza, stop." Rafiq was instantly calm, his rage vaporized by the boy's pain.
No reaction from Aza, except for a few more sniffles.
"Aza," said Rafiq, "I'm sorry. I was just surprised is all. I should have warned you before about- I'll call for Kasim so that he-" The man sighed, watching the crying boy. "You can stay."
The boy looked up slightly.
"You can stay," Rafiq repeated.
Aza smiled. "Thank you, master. I know exactly what to do." The boy turned and ran out.
"Don't call me 'mas-'" Rafiq held his forehead in one hand and groaned. Only the results of his mother's agendas ever made his head hurt like this.
Aza returned at his most careful top speed, gleefully gripping a red pouch. He immediately began pulling out vials and small boxes from inside.
"I have oils to make you relax and I have herbs to make your skin tingle. I even have something to make bubbles explode everywhere. Though I think that I should probably wait for another time to try that one."
"Where did you get all this?" Rafiq asked.
"All the boys at the palace know to use these," said Aza with pride. "The Kalifa made sure I had a full allotment before I left. He told me that since I was a royal gift, I was to treat you as if you were royalty too. He was most insistent."
"You've done this with the Kalifa?"
"I served at his bath a few times. I was not there for long though, so there is much I never got to do." His tone was a strange mix of relief and regret. "Mostly, I served food."
"So, you've never...?"
"Well, that depends on what-"
"Forget I asked."
Aza seemed only too happy to do so and dropped a few careful measures and pinches of his ingredients into the bath. After mixing it well with an arm while leaning over, he muttered, "It really should be warm," and then he moved behind Rafiq.
As the boy massaged his neck, Rafiq was thinking, 'Praise Allah he didn't touch my cock while he was poking around down there. If he'd aroused anything, he might be crying for me to let him have a go there too.'
The boy's fingers seemed to know just what mix of softness and pressure Rafiq's muscles needed and soon Rafiq let go a small purr. Aza giggled and the man suffered through the rest of his exquisite bath in a difficult, forced, silence.
Comments welcome. Even if you're reading this in an archive years from now, I'd love to hear what you think.