(part 2 of 2)

by Funtails

In the sharp orange light of sunset, the two boys--Aza and Talib--sailed down the Tigris with Rafiq, Dawood and Kasim on a flat-bottomed skiff to the estate of Yusuf Abd-al-Rahman.

Lanterns illuminated the way from the dock to the banquet tents, where the scent of sizzling goat meat, cool river air and sweaty humanity mixed together in a haze of indulgence. Dawood had been right about the serving girls and boys. They glided about in loose clothes, their flat stomachs bare and their delicate hands sliding meat, sweets, wine and favors to guests everywhere. Music kicked up in spurts and starts from various musicians in scattered corners, often in conflict with each other.

Aza stood out immediately in his sky-blue, silver-embroidered vest. His hair was oiled and neatly combed, shining in the lamp light. He kept looking around as Rafiq and the others tore into the food and drink. Talib became immediately happy after half a cup of wine and began flirting with both the serving boys and girls, eventually earning enough favor from one dark-eyed lass that the two of them slid out into the darkness near the river as many other couples and groups were doing.

"You, boy!" said a drunk, oversized man, staggering to the cushioned corner where Rafiq and Dawood sat. He pointed at Aza. "You're a dancer aren't you? You one of them dancing boys at the Kalifa's palace. I seen you when I was there for Eid last month."

"And peace be with you too this evening, Abzal," Rafiq said calmly to the groom.

"He your boy, Rafiq? You done good to bag yourself one of the Kalifa's boys!"

"He's my boy," said Rafiq, tossing a grape in his mouth with careful casualness.

"Of course, of course! Well said. And he's a good and loyal little slave, I'm sure." The man looked over Aza, not with lust, but with a need to possess and claim the ornaments of the world. "You will have him dance for us, won't you, Rafiq? That would bring great honor to my wedding, having such a fine dancer entertain my guests."

"He dances, if he dances at all, by his own inclination," said Rafiq. "And I will not see him forced into it."

"You are true to your scandalous reputation, Rafiq. Indeed." Abzal turned to Aza and, unable to completely keep the mockery, or liquor, from his voice, said, "Very well, dear boy, I humbly entreat you: Would you do my guests the honor of a dance?"

Rafiq avoided Aza's gaze trying hard not to give any hint of what he thought the boy should do.

"I will dance," said Aza softly.

"Excellent!" Abzal yelled at the drummers and flute-players and they began to set a tune.

A space immediately opened in the center of the tent. Aza carefully stepped out of his sandals, closed his eyes and breathed deep. His eyes then opened like a provoked lion's and he sprinted into the dance floor, leaping and seamlessly merging his dance into the music.

The tentful of guests cheered.

Every step Aza made seemed whimsical, yet linked with his others in a clear pattern. His toes flashed out at chest height, seeming to take him by surprise, yet the arc was precisely curved. Each hip swing seemed to be driven by musical impulse, yet they were just long and slow enough to be enticing and just short and quick enough to to be ephemeral.

Rafiq was forced to stand as everyone else strove to see better.

Aza moved within the crowd, gliding his shoulder against one man, then boldly sliding has face by another. At one point, everyone held their breath as Aza knelt leaning backward, before an old sheikh, gradually slowing the movements of his lower body while holding the man entranced with his torso. Then the boy's neck and shoulders went still as all the energy went into Aza's hand, gliding before the man's stunned face. The final motion was a single finger, flicking the man's nose in a comical goodbye as Aza whirled his body back into top speed and twirled an arc through the laughing crowd.

"I bet that old bastard just spooged his pants."

Rafiq turned to see Talib at his side, the now-dishevelled serving girl with him. She seemed hypnotized by Aza. Even Talib could find no more wisecracks to make as the dance continued to a loud, raucus end, the musicians demanding every last effort from Aza, helped along by the accelerating handclaps of the crowd.

With the last reverberating drumnote, Aza was left on his toes, his body and his extended arms arcing like a crescent moon. He held still like that, his face and breathing frozen, until the applause eased. Then he bowed to Abzal and, with a lowered head, scampered to Rafiq amid cries for more. When the boy collapsed into Rafiq's side his thin body was panting hard and Rafiq could feel the accumulated tenseness as he stroked the boy's head and back.

Guests dropped by Rafiq's table to pat Aza on the shoulder and, sometimes, to drop a few coins in his lap. The boy accepted the plaudits with gratitude and a graceful smile. When Yusuf, the groom's father, came over, he said sincerely, "Your charm and skill have honored my household, child. I thank you."

"I was pleased to serve you in your time of celebration," said Aza.

For a moment, Rafiq wondered at how such a dignified and amiable man as Yusuf had produced a son as rude as Abzal. Then Rafiq considered the differences between himself and his own father. They had been inseparable in his childhood, but as his father became more concerned with trade and Rafiq had become, in his father's words, 'unserious and dotish,' that closeness had evaporated.

Yusuf looked at Rafiq. "He is a blessed boy." Then he smiled and added, "And you are a blessed man."

The rest of the night was a mix of childish jokes, food, music, dancing and more food - with sex hovering around the outsides of it all. Rafiq found himself not as interested as he usually would be. He kept asking Aza questions about his past or his opinions on things. Besides his knowledge of Khorasan, the boy's mother had filled him with stories of life even further east, in the Hindu homeland from which she had been captured as a child. Gradually becoming more free with his words, Aza engaged the kinds of questions that occupied Rafiq's mind, such as the implications of local farming practices for the life of peasants, or how a caste system could have evolved and become useful, or which wars had made which kingdoms stronger in the long term and which had not. The boy's responses showed insight and contemplation. He was not afraid to offer alternative interpretations to Rafiq's conclusions, but Aza was also careful to admit when his knowledge was limited. Though his thinking often showed his youth and lack of experience, it was never simplistic.

Aza seemed relieved to tell his stories, as if he had not had the chance to think about these things in a long time and by speaking of them, he was making them more real. He never talked about his mother in specifics, though. That was one memory he did not want to make more real.


At the dock, sometime after midnight, they waited for Dawood's boatman.

Rafiq, as usual, had only drunk enough to be in a good mood. He enjoyed the chill of the night air and the soft lapping of waves near his feet.

Dawood was talking to Aza in a slurred voice, repeatedly trying to assure the boy that he held no hard feelings over the carpet fiasco.

Aza had indulged in a surprising amount of wine and, even more surprisingly, seemed unaffected by it, reassuring Dawood with pats on the shoulder.

Talib was singing incoherently as he lay on the beach, his serving girl in one arm and what appeared to be her brother in the other, the two siblings kissing him in turns.

"May we ride with you?" called a booming voice from the shadows.

Two men emerged, one looking like a soldier, though he wore no weapon, only the clothes of a low-end merchant; the other like a scrawny roc, his clothes those of an overindulged servant.

"Noor!" said Rafiq, recognizing the trader. "Dawood, this is Noor the Forgetful, a sometimes visitor to our fine city."

"You hurt me, Rafiq," said Noor theatrically. "I have my home here."

"Hah. I pass there three times a week and it's always locked. Your real home is on the back of your camel, in whatever land you've chosen to blight with your presence."

"And you live here under a rock, like a toad."

"Well," said Rafiq, "this toad is glad you've made your once yearly appearance in Baghdad. I have not listened to your stories for too long. It's too bad I did not see you at the feast."

"Maybe because you were too overcome with the boy's dancing," Noor laughed, "like everyone else there."

Aza seemed strangely paralysed by the man's compliments.

The boat pulled up, and Rafiq said to Noor, "Come with us. I'll get you home."

"Many thanks, Rafiq. As I tell everyone, you are a most kind man."

"Then you better close your eyes for this," said Rafiq and he threw a handful of sand at Talib and his two playmates. "Get up, you. Time to go."

Talib gave one last ostentatious kiss to each of his friends and then he and Dawood helped each other onto the boat. Rafiq put a hand to Aza's back and gently guided the silent boy aboard.

When the boat shoved off, everyone sat against the rails, facing each other. Noor rubbed his ankle above his sandal and sighed. Aza crumpled against Rafiq's side and closed his eyes.

"Your boy seems out of it," said Noor. "Past his bed time?"

"He gets seasick."

"He seems quite trusting of you, yet I gather he hasn't been yours for long?"

"One day."

"Ah," Noor smiled, "Rafiq al-Saif, friend to boys everywhere. The men of Baghdad love their boys, but you love them. And the boys can tell. You know my nephew Duha still asks about you?"

"The one who visited from that village up the river?"


"With the birthmark on the inside of his-"

"The same."

"He must be a grown man by now, surely?"

"And yet he remembers you. With favour, I might add. I'm surprised you never went looking for him."

Rafiq sighed. "I prefer to take my limited journeys down the river."

"Oh? Are the marsh boys prettier?"

"More dirty," said Rafiq, returning the humor.

But Noor became serious. "Why do you not travel more? You clearly would wander this Earth forever if you could."

"My family does not wish it. I have agreed to travel beyond Basorrah only once per year."

They drifted along for a long while in silence. Rafiq stroked Aza's smooth hair, twirling the longer bits.

"You could leave and never come back," Noor said eventually, waving downriver.

"No, I couldn't. A man needs his family."

"Even if they impede his life with demands and awkward gifts?" asked Noor, pointing to Aza. Rafiq realised that Noor was better informed than he first appeared.

"Aza is becoming more convenient by the hour."

"But something about him bothers you."

"Well, it's no secret in Baghdad that I am uncomfortable with slaves."

"So why don't you-"

free him?

Rafiq cut Noor off with a finger to his lips. Then he pointed at Aza and Noor nodded his understanding.

"One of the things I find," Rafiq explained, "is that a slave comes to accept his role. He never thinks of what could be or should be, just of what is. You cannot simply command him to stop thinking of himself as dirt - to stop looking to his master for a purpose in life. To try and stop all that at once will be disastrous for him."

Rafiq knew he was notorious for giving these lectures, but that never stopped him. He continued, "It's part of the sickness of all muslims today. They say 'the way things are is Allah's will so why struggle against it? Why stop slavery if Allah allows it?'"

"But if the conditions of this world were not his will, then they would not exist!" Despite Noor's exuberance, his servant snored in his corner.

"Of course." Rafiq searched for words. Something about Noor's unguarded voice instilled a feeling of apprehension that he seldom felt in arguments. "The world of the present is the world Allah desired, but thinking it is His will that things stay this way is just as presumptious as trying to change them."

Noor seemed to quickly regain control of his emotions and said, "If Allah wants things changed, He will change them Himself."

"Spoken like an imam." Rafiq leaned forward a bit. "Noor, if you're right, then our actions don't matter to His will and we are free to choose our actions." Rafiq looked to the stars then back at Noor. "Besides, it is clear that Allah wishes us to end slavery. In the Quran, does He not look with favor on those who free slaves?"

"That's hardly a statement of intent, my friend."

"It's the closest thing that He gives us. And if the Kalifa and his hard-headed clerics were true to the Prophet, they would make a fatwah of it."

"This city would collapse," said Noor. "You think the Kalifa can simply end an economic foundation of our society?"

"A society with such a rotten foundation deserves to fall."

Aza stiffened and seemed to tremble against Rafiq. He leaned back and pulled the boy close. Holding Aza seemed to clear the man's head. Rafiq's breathing slowed. "I'm being unrealistic, of course," he said to Noor with a shrug. "You're right. The Kalifa cannot wave slavery away. But he's not even making an effort."

"Maybe he has more pressing concerns?" asked Noor. "Like war, trade, alliances, food production?"

"You travel, Noor. You know we have less of those worries in Baghdad than anywhere in the world. We can afford the 'indulgence' of letting men have their rightful freedom."

The boat slowed and shifted.

"Well, Rafiq, I am at my stop." Noor rose to his feet with a sure step. "My friend, I think, as is usual when we talk, that we must part ways in respectful disagreement."

"It has been entertaining, as always," said Rafiq. They hugged each other.

"I will tell you one thing," said Noor as he helped his servant onto the small dock. "If the Kalifa could hear you tonight, he might be angry at your sedition, but he would take heart that his boy had found such a kind master."

"No! I-"

"You are no one's master, I know. I know." Noor raised his hand as the boat pulled away. "Peace be with you."

"And with you," Rafiq responded.


When they reached his family's home near dawn, Rafiq dismounted then took Aza down from the horse they had ridden together. The boy still had not recovered from the boat trip.

"Take him to my room," he instructed Kasim. "Let him drink some water. As much as he can manage."

The servant and the boy went through the stable door, leaving Rafiq alone with Talib, who had sobered up.

"You still like me, don't you?" the boy asked.

"Yes." said Rafiq, looking absently at the doorway.

"I'm still your Favorite Boy?"

That was an old nickname Rafiq had used when the boy was much younger. His mention of it made the usually hardy Talib seem suddenly frail.

"Are you alright?" Rafiq asked. "How come- Is it the boy? Aza?"

"Yes, you seem to really enjoy him."

"I'm always enjoying boys. All over this city there are dozens of them yelling my name from windows and balconies and the backs of camels when they see me. That's never bothered you before."

"This one's different. It's like he was made to fit you."

"No one is made to fit anyone," said Rafiq dismissively. For one thing, every person is changing all the time and sooner or later things don't match up as well as they used to."

Usually the boy would have responded to an opening like that with a stinging comment such as, "You mean the way your dick's too small to satisfy me anymore?"

Instead, Talib said, "He's what you've always wanted."

"What I have always wanted isn't-"

"You've been wanting someone to be yourself with for a long time."

"I'm myself with you," Rafiq said.

"Not really. It's like you put away a part of your mind. The way my mother puts away the knife when the baby is in the kitchen."

"I don't-"

"You do," Talib said with flat certainty. "But not with him."

Rafiq took a moment to figure out what Talib needed to hear, then said, "He's here because he is forced on me. You're here because I choose to have you here. Go home and get some sleep, Talib." He kissed the boy on the top of his head and said, "Salaam."

"Salaam," said the boy and then walked away down the right side of the street.

"You know," Rafiq called after him, "if you ask him, he'll teach you to dance."

"Who, Aza?"

"Yes. I'm sure of it."

"You mean it?"


There was a whisper of a smile in the dark and then the boy, with a lighter gait, walked away.


Aza was not in Rafiq's room. A cup of water stood untouched. The blue vest had been carefully folded and placed in a corner. No doubt Aza still thought of the clothes as the Kalifa's. Rafiq would have to buy the boy some new clothes the next day-

No. He would send Aza to the bazaar with Talib and Nayad. Maybe Talib could make the new clothes seem like his payment for dancing lessons. That way Aza would never know that Rafiq had paid for them.

"Aza just ran to the roof," said Hamal, coming to the door with Shaira. "He seems to be in some distress."

"He's still seasick. I need to go make sure he doesn't fall off the-"

"I asked Kasim to watch him," said his father. "Stay. He will be fine for a little longer."

"What did you say to him?" demanded Shaira, her night clothes and hair rumpled.

"Nothing! He was fine all night until the boatride."

"You didn't give him liquor did you?"

"Mother-" Rafiq's head hurt.

"You did!" Shaira advanced on him. "You have to take care of this boy, Rafiq. You cannot just-"

Hamal interrupted her, "Be quiet, woman." Then he said to Rafiq, "This is no ordinary boy, Rafiq."

"I know."

Shaira said, "No, I don't think you do." She took a deep breath then looked Rafiq straight in the eyes. "I told the Kalifa that I did not want for you his most handsome boy or his most skilled at love play or his most obedient. I said, 'Give me your most intelligent boy. Give me one that has curiosity and imagination and tells good stories.'"

"You're lucky he did not take your head for such presumption."

"It was worth the risk to bring you happiness, son."


"You and Aza will have love and, with it, happiness. Even though he has to grow up and your time together will come to an end, you will have the memory of love to keep you happy."

Shaira gently cupped one half of Rafiq's face and he held her hand there.

She said, "When Allah made you, He wrote the name 'Aza' on your heart."

"I hope He wrote a few other names on there as well."

"Don't joke, Rafiq," said his father. "Love is serious. This is serious."

"I know," Rafiq conceded.

"Whatever is wrong with the boy, it's not drinking or boat rides. You need to find out and you need to fix it."

"Some things cannot be fixed, Father."


At the top of the stairs to the rooftop, Rafiq found Kasim. The big man pointed to a dark corner, then handed his torch to Rafiq and left. Taking the light over revealed Aza, wearing only pyjamas and a bead necklace. The boy was on the floor, against the wall. His hands were wrapped around his knees and he rocked steadily forward and back.


Rafiq dropped the torch into a nearby stand and knelt.


The boy looked up as if he were seeing Rafiq for the first time ever, then he flashed with recognition.

"Rafiq!" He grabbed the man, alarmed. "Rafiq, that man in the boat-"

"Aza, please, calm-"

"That man on the boat was the Kalifa!"

"Just take deep breaths. You'll-" Aza's words finally registered. "Noor?"

"It's a disguise," said Aza.

"I've known Noor for years. You expect me to believe that he's Harun al-Rashid, the leader of all the civilised world, wandering the streets of his own city at night like a beggar?"

"I didn't know for sure at first, but in the boat I saw a scar on his ankle. It's an old battlescar. I've washed that scar many times."

"And I suppose the old servant with him was his wazir?"

"Yes. The two of them go out to see how their people live. I've heard rumors about it since I got to the palace."

"The Kalifa and his Chief Minister have a hundred spies at their disposal. They do not need-"

"They want to see things for themselves," Aza explained. Then he panicked. "And now they've heard you say that the city deserves to collapse! They're going to throw you in jail or behead you or feed you to Sadaf-"


"Sadaf, the tiger at the palace-"

Rafiq started laughing and could not stop.

"Don't do that. This is serious!"

"The tiger's name is Seashell?

"It's Lady Zubaida's tiger."

"I'm sorry Aza, but I really don't see myself becoming dinner for a tiger named Seashell." Rafiq let out a few last chuckles, to Aza's clear annoyance. "Besides, in all these years, I've told Noor much worse things and I'm still not catfood. I once said that the Kalifa was the wazir's stooge and another time I said he was going to destroy the city with his stupidity."

"He must really like you to let you live."

"He likes no one. I think." Rafiq stood and pulled Aza to his feet. "But he needs me around so he can see how my opinions change over time. That way he can judge the effect he's having on people."

"He agrees with some of what you said, you know."

"Which parts?"

"About the will of Allah," said Aza. "That's why he became excited when you mentioned it. He's always quarelling with the imams over it, telling them that he's going to do whatever he wants and if Allah doesn't like it, then He can come down and stop him."

"I didn't realise you were awake for all that. Did you hear anything else interesting?"

"Some." Rafiq caught the barest flicker of boyish mischief in Aza's eyes. The boy asked, "So you're a slave owner who doesn't want slaves?"

Rafiq was pleased to see the true boy come out, but then he felt regret. The question hurt. He ground his teeth together.

"I am not a slave owner. I own no man."

"But Kasim-"

"Kasim is my mother's imposition on me. He serves me on her orders. She does not think it fit for a man of my stature to be without an attendant, you see."

"But you need him, I think," said Aza.

"He is useful to me, yes. My point is that I cannot stop him making himself useful to me. He goes about his business without my direction for the most part." Rafiq glanced at the flickering lights of the city below. "That is yet another of my failings that they have not managed to correct."

"What is?"

"Not giving orders properly. Even as child I was polite to the slaves. I never demanded. I always requested. Always said 'thank you' in a way that meant gratitude instead of just dismissal. My father thinks I am too soft. He thinks that the slaves will not respect me if I am not firm."

"He is right." Aza's eyes tightened in conviction. "A slave needs to know his place. He must always know that he risks his master's displeasure if he is slothful or disrespectful. A slave has no need for kindness."

"And today in the bath? Was my kindness uncalled for?"

The boy seemed to panic then stood still, looking at his sandals. "I... I was weak, Master. I am ashamed of my conduct. If you wish to punish me, you would be most justified."

"Aza," said Rafiq, gently.

All night, Rafiq had been surprised at how easily he could talk to the boy on an intimate level he had never reached with anyone since he and his father had been close. This boy seemed to be such a ready-made partner for his heart's discussions. Rafiq had many friends in this vast city. Many of them knew his unconventional views, but he was always sure to offer his opinions about slavery in the trappings of philosophy, of interpretations of the Quran. They would, all of them, see only weakness in him if they knew how emotional his thinking was. Rafiq knew no such fear with Aza. Even if the boy were not a slave, Rafiq was sure, Aza would never judge him that way.

"Aza, look at me."

The boy continued to stare at the ground. "I am fine, Master. There is no need for you to- I am strong enough to serve you."

Rafiq took his chin in one hand and lifted it up. Tears glistened under the torch. The dark skin glowed in the soft light. When Rafiq reached for the boy, Aza pulled back, turning sideways with his shoulders lowered. It was probably only his training that prevented the boy from turning his back entirely, or maybe even running way. It would be so easy, Rafiq felt, to use that training to pry the boy out of his self-pity. Rafiq could order him to straighten up, smile and accept his offered hand, and the boy would throw off his sadness and obey.

But that was not the solution. Forcing him to accept kindness would be just as bad for him as forcing him to do anything else.

Rafiq walked over to the wall and said, "Aza, look at this city around you. What do you see?"

"What?" The boy looked up, puzzled.

"Baghdad. What is this city when you look at it?"

"I don't understand." Aza wiped his face.

"I like to think of it as a great and magnificent animal," said Rafiq. "And we people- we who live in it, are each no more than organs or parts of it. We are like a million and one fingers and eyelashes and other little things that could not do anything on their own."

The boy seemed to understand that bit well enough.

"You and I standing here," said Rafiq, "we are just two unimportant little pieces that this place does not truly need. We can leave it behind without consequence to the city. Agreed?"


"I want you to imagine that on this roof we stand not only above the city, but above all its rules. Forget about who you are supposed to be and how you are supposed to act. Here we have left it all below and we are too insignificant for great, teeming Baghdad to even notice that we are gone. Forget that you are 'slave' and I am 'master'.

"Can you do that?" Rafiq asked.

"Maybe- Yes."

"Good. So now, we are standing here as just two people. I owe you nothing and you owe me nothing. Suddenly, we are important, because we have only each other."

He offered his hand again. The boy seemed to be waiting for Rafiq to continue, but the man was done. The boy had to figure the rest out for himself.

Aza looked at Rafiq's open hand long and hard. Then he looked at the man's face--a look of pure examination, not hiding its intense scrutiny. Rafiq held his breath. He was being judged more meaningfully now than he would be even at Yaumal Kiyamat, the Day of Reckoning at the end of time when he would stand before Allah.

Light broke east of Baghdad, and the world got just a bit brighter. The tension on Aza's forehead slackened. The boy smiled. It was the look of someone discovering a great secret. He took Rafiq's hand and did not resist when the man pulled him close and held him.



"Don't touch me there!"

"It won't hurt, I promise."

"You can't do this. It's- Aaaaaahhh! In the name of Allah, have mercy!"

The tent flap moved and Duha entered. The Kalifa's young spymaster smirked at the scene. "What's all this womanly screaming about then?"

Rafiq glared at him.

Aza said, "Rafiq is being a coward."

Duha inspected the sword wound in Rafiq's side as Aza continued to clean it and apply medicine. "Will you be able to travel on tomorrow?"

"He will be fine," said Aza "It is a light wound."

"Excellent. I'll go order the men to get ready." With a flash of his handsome smile, Duha was gone.

With familiar care, Aza continued his ministrations.

Rafiq said, "You know, for a job as straightforward as bed servant, they seem to give you an awful lot of ancilliary training. You're a poet and a musician and a cook and now a healer." Rafiq shook his head. "And then you shot that duck out of the sky last week... Kasim still can't believe his eyes. And all you can say to explain yourself is 'training.' You must have had one incredible trainer, I tell you that."

"I had dozens."

Somewhere far behind them, Rafiq knew, his mother was laughing quietly.

"I enjoyed healer training more than all the rest, though," said Aza. Then, as if confessing a sin, he said, "I treated some of the other wounded men while you were sleeping."

"Maybe you've found your calling."

"Maybe," said Aza, making a token attempt to hide his excitment at the prospect.

It had been an eventful few days. Aza had been kidnapped during a raid on the caravan, and Rafiq had chased the bandits down on horseback, sustaining a slash during his rescue.

It had been an exciting month, in fact - from the time the Kalifa had called Rafiq and Aza before him in a private chamber of the palace.

"So, youngster, has this slavemonger freed you yet?"

"Yes, Excellency," said Aza.

"I'm glad. And how are you finding freedom?"

"Sometimes it seems very big."

"You will grow into it I am sure."

Nearby, Lady Zubaida and her tiger relaxed on cushions laid upon the grass of an indoor garden.

The Kalifa said, "I have need of your assistance, dear Rafiq."

"I wish only to serve."

"One of my young commanders, Duha Ibrahim, is taking a caravan on some quiet state business for me. I believe you met him once?"

"Yes," said Rafiq. "He was a boy."

"Well, he's still mostly a boy. He has good instincts for his work, but sometimes he lacks diplomacy. I wish you to accompany him. Keep him out of trouble. Take Aza with you."

Stunned, it was a while before Rafiq could think to ask, "Where are we going?"

Harun al-Rashid smiled.

So now, Rafiq and Aza were on their way east, to the lands beyond the borders of the empire. They would be on the Kalifa's mission for years together, the horizon forever new.

On their way through Zahedan, capital of Khorasan, they were to deliver a letter of manumission for Aza's mother. That had caused some problems with the boy.

"Suppose she doesn't want to see me?" he had asked as their camels plodded forward one day. "What if she's not happy with me? Maybe she has a better life now and-"

"Maybe she spends her days longing for a glimpse of you," said Rafiq. "Maybe you going back will be the happiest day of her life." Rafiq's words seemed to knock Aza into a confusion of alien thoughts. "Maybe you need to stop worrying about things that might be or might not be."

Still, it remained a worry for both of them that things might not go well with Aza's mother.

But Khorasan was a long way off as Rafiq sat on the hill outside his tent, his cut still throbbing. Kasim and Talib were quarreling over a pot down below. Aza brought Rafiq some stew and bread and they ate together, sharing the bowl and watching the small river that flowed out of the valley and into the east.



Comments welcome. Even if you're reading this in an archive years from now, I'd love to hear what you think.,
November, 2010.