by Judith Tarr
“And she was shaped just so,” said Hasan, miming beauty in the air.
“Melons,” sighed Rashid, who had already had as much wine as was good for him. “Pomegranates.” He staggered. The others propped him up. People, passing, disapproved.
Hasan smiled sweetly at them. “And a fine day it is, good sirs. Such a lovely cloud of dust in our enchanted streets. Such a ripe reek of offal.” He sniffed delicately. “Ah. Camel dung. The finest vintage, my friends. The very finest.”
His companions applauded. He saluted them with graceful extravagance. A waterseller jostled past him, goatskin sack about his neck, copper cup swinging from his belt, crying his wares.
“Water!” Daoud was disgusted. “Wine for me. Sweet wine, lovely wine, wine of Cairo, wine of Alexandria, wine of Damascus…”
“Wine of Paradise,” hiccoughed Rashid.
Hasan shook his head sadly as they paused before his father’s gate. “No wine there, alas. Only milk and honey.”
They groaned in chorus. He bowed and bade them a fond farewell.
It was cool under his own roof, quiet after the clamor of the street, fragrant with roses and citron. As he turned the corner into the first shaded court, servants came running to greet him. They brought water for his feet and his hands and his sweating face; a fresh robe, light and cool, and soft slippers; a cup of sherbet to cool his throat. “Young master,” they murmured. “Young prince.”
He smiled at them. It was a joyous world he lived in. Good wine warming his middle, fine friends newly parted from, and the whole small kingdom of his father’s house devoting itself to his pleasure.
There was a shadow or two on his bliss, to be sure. A little matter. A wager lost. Or two. Or maybe three. He shrugged, sipped the last of the sherbet, turned toward the inner stair.
He paused. Kemal abased himself as only Kemal could, with perfect correctness but with most imperfect servility. “Young master,” the old man said, “your father commands your presence.” He spoke of Hasan’s father as a proper Muslim would speak of the Prophet.
Hasan regarded him with distaste and his message with disfavor. But even Hasan knew better than to ignore the summons of Ali Mousa Sharif. In as good order as he might, he went to face his father.
When Ali Mousa was pleased with his son, he waited in the garden under the lemon tree. When he was not pleased, he waited in the court of the white fountain. Now Kemal led Hasan through the empty court, where the fountain played all alone; passed the door that led to the garden; and ushered him into a high cool chamber with tiles the color of the sky. White daylight poured from louvers in the roof to illumine Ali Mousa’s face; a fan swayed slowly, languid as the slave who wielded it.
Hasan had been more puzzled than perturbed. Looking into his father’s eyes, he began to be—not afraid. But apprehensive: yes, he could admit to that. He bowed low, kissed the carpet between his hands. But it was not in him to grovel at anyone’s feet, even Ali Mousa’s. He raised himself, sat on his heels.
Ali Mousa looked at him. Hasan knew what he was seeing. Handsome Hasan whose mother had been a Circassian slave, whose father was of the lineage of the Prophet. Hasan who was beautiful and knew it, who could widen his fine dark eyes and flash his fine white teeth and charm his way out of anything. Even, he was certain, this. He armed his eyes. He readied his smile. He ventured a flicker of both.
“I presume,” said Ali Mousa, “that you have an explanation to offer.”
Hasan offered innocence. “Explanation, Father? What is there to explain?”
“The Pearl of the Desert,” said Ali Mousa.
Hasan gaped like an idiot. This was not like his father at all. This was as direct as a Frankish charge.
“Nine mares,” said Ali Mousa. “Nine daughters of the east wind. Nine elect of the elect of Arabia, and each in foal to a prince of stallions. And above them all, the beautiful, the incomparable, the Pearl of the Desert, mother of nine champions, bearer of the heir of my beloved lost prince. Ten perfect jewels adorned my stable; and this morning one came to take them away. They were his, he told me. He had won them. He offered proof. I, said the document he carried, Hasan al-Fahl Sharif ibn Ali Mousa ibn Abd al-Mahdi ibn Suleiman al-Qurayshi of the blood of the Prophet, upon whose name be prayer and peace, having wagered at backgammon the ten mares who are mine to wager, do hereby surrender into the hands of this my creditor—”
With each word Hasan sank down further, until he lay upon tiles as cold as his heart. But he was still Hasan. He raised wide brimming eyes. “Father,” he said. “Oh, Father. I was winning. The luck was with me. I was going to win the emir’s whole harem. But then—but then—”
For all the heed Ali Mousa took of him, he might never have spoken at all. “When you roistered yourself into public prison, I dismissed it as mere youthful exuberance. When you cut a swath through the daughters of Cairo, I called it but manhood waxing the hotter for that you were early come to it. Even when you were brought to law for dyeing the Imam Masoudi’s beard green while he slept in his own garden, I confess, I found myself more amused than not. I resolved to forgive you. You are my only son, and young, and possessed of more than your share of high spirits.
“But this,” said Ali Mousa, “this passes the bounds of simple mischief. I have paid your fines, defended you in court and before a succession of outraged fathers, and satisfied your swarm of creditors. Never to my knowledge have you lied; have you wagered away that to which you have no right; have you wagered it in backgammon, which every school of law has condemned as the creation of Iblis.”
“I swear,” cried Hasan. “I swear I won’t do it again!”
“So you have always sworn. And, to do you credit, kept your word. Only to advance to a sin which as far exceeds its predecessors as the Pearl of the Desert exceeds the waterseller’s donkey. To what will you rise now? Rape? Murder? Apostasy?”
Hasan pressed his forehead to his father’s foot. “I promise. I promise. No more.”
“And for how long? How long before the wine rises in you, or your companions incite you, or your own demon pricks you to some new outrage?”
Hasan lay on the floor and wept. Ali Mousa neither moved nor spoke. Hasan, wept dry, hiccoughing, lifted his head. His father’s face was set in stone. He had never seen it so implacable; so utterly unmoved by his tears. “What can I do?” he cried.
“Obviously,” said Ali Mousa, “you cannot be your own master. My fault. I have not raised you as a father should. I have indulged you to the point of folly; I have spoiled you to ruin. But that is done. I have failed in my office. I shall surrender you now to one who may be stronger than I, and sterner.”
Hasan rose to his knees, too shocked yet to understand.
“It is an old custom. Cruel, I thought once; antiquated. Yet my kindness has begotten only pain. We shall see if the old way does not prove best. Tomorrow,” said Ali Mousa, “you depart from Cairo. My servants are bidden to conduct you to the one who will be your father henceforward until he judges you worthy of your name: to him who was my own father in more than blood, the Sheikh Uthman of the Banu Faisal.”
Hasan sank back upon his heels. Sheikh Uthman. That terrible old man, that hawk of the desert, that Bedouin bandit who alone in the world had ever been impervious to Hasan’s eyes or his smile. Hasan had heard him once when he brought his reek of camels and the desert into Ali Mousa’s clean house: “That’s a fine lily of a boy you have, young Ali. Lovely as his mother, and with her red hair, too; and as spirited as one of my young stallions. All he needs is a dose of the lash, to teach him submission.”
Hasan’s tears burned away in a fire of anger. “How can you do this to me? How can you cast me out?”
“Better now and by my own will, than later and by the will of the city’s tribunal. I have been a fool, but I am not blind. I see that there is no hope for you while you dwell in my house. In Sheikh Uthman’s tent, among his sons, perhaps you will learn to be a man.”
“It will kill me.”
“Allah forbid,” said Ali Mousa. “But if He so wills, then so He wills it. He is the Merciful, the Compassionate. He is the Lord of the Worlds.”
Hasan would not bow his head to piety. He was too far gone in outrage. “What have I done to deserve exile? Punishment, yes, gladly I will bear anything, even the lash. But to be flung into the desert, cast among the sons of camels, turned into a filthy Bedu dog—“
Ali Mousa struck him. He reeled more with astonishment than with pain. “You will not speak ill of my kin and yours. My father sent me as now I send you; and I was younger, no more than a child, and I had done nothing to earn his wrath, but he was adamant. The desert is the forge of men. So shall it forge you.”
Anger shattered. Tears sprang anew. True, this time; piteous. Hasan flung himself upon his father’s knees. “Please, Father. I’ll do anything. I’ll be your slave, your servant, anything. Only let me stay with you!”
Ali Mousa never moved. “Tomorrow,” he said, “you go.”
“I’ll kill myself!”
“Tomorrow,” said Ali Mousa. “I have decided. It is settled. After this night, until Sheikh Uthman sends you back to me, you are no longer my son.”
The harem was closed against Hasan. His mother would not speak to him. When he forced his way to her door, he found it barred, and silence within for all his hammering and shouting and tearful beseeching.
He retreated at last, shaking, drawing back to the haven of his own chamber. But there was no haven left. Everything in it that had been his own was gone, save for one pitifully small bundle laid by the door. The lone servant who would come to wait on him was his father’s, the one of them all whom he could be said to respect, the tall dour soldier-slave Mahaut who had taught him what he knew of the arts of war. Mahaut did not know the meaning of pity. He stood with folded arms and watched Hasan fling himself from wall to wall, weeping, raging, wreaking havoc with what few furnishings his father’s wrath had left him.
The storm passed as swiftly as it had come. Hasan sank down, empty. Mahaut was silent. Hasan swallowed. His throat was raw. “It’s a game,” he said hoarsely. “Isn’t it? A show. To shake me to my senses. Tomorrow I’ll beg him to be merciful, and he’ll let me win him over. Won’t he, Mahaut? He loves me. He can’t bear to be parted from me.”
Mahaut’s blue Frankish eyes rested on him. Measuring him. Bare feet, torn robe, discarded turban. But no bruises on his precious white skin, no mark on his cheeks where the red down was just beginning to thicken. Even his passion was a pretense. There was no more to him than a pair of eyes and a famous smile. Mar one or both, rob him of his vaunted beauty, and what would he be? Nothing. Nothing at all.
He scrambled up. “There is more to me than that. There is!”
Mahaut raised an ironic brow.
“I’ll show you. I’ll show you all.” Hasan kept saying it. Mahaut said nothing at all. He was simply there, inescapably, wherever Hasan turned.
Hasan knew the taste of prison. It was bitter, and it was cold. Anger warmed him little in it.
“I’ll show you,” he whispered. He stood still in the middle of his emptied floor. Mahaut watched him tirelessly, in calm that was too perfect even to be contempt. Hasan was no match for Frankish muscle, nor ever could be.
His shoulders drooped. His head sank in dejection. He drifted, stumbling, toward the bundle and the door. Mahaut did not move.
Hasan snatched, leaped, bolted. Full under his jailer’s hands, the wind of them chilling his nape as he darted beneath. They caught his gown. He twisted viciously. The fine linen tore. He burst out of it, all but naked in drawers and shirt, and running all the lighter for it.
The Frank knew his master’s house, but Hasan knew every cranny in it, and every smallest bolthole. He laughed even as he fled, white wild laughter, fierce with mockery.
The last he knew of Mahaut was the thudding of feet and the snarl of a Frankish curse. Then he was over the garden wall, bundle slung behind him, the crowds and clamor of the city before. They parted: shocked eyes, startled faces, a flicker of laughter.
He halted in an alleyway, gulping air, grinning like a mad thing. After a moment he remembered what he carried. He lowered it, spreading it open on the ground; and laughed aloud. Fine robes for the desert, these; princely fine. Under the interested eye of a small grey cat, he put them on, winding the turban, hanging from his belt the weight that had been the heart of his booty. A very heavy weight, jingling musically.
He laughed again, lighter now, freer. “Oh, surely, God is with me!” The cat yawned and flicked her tail. “I’ll show them,” he said to her. “I’ll win back everything I ever lost. I’ll win it back a hundredfold. And then I’ll be perfection itself. They’ll see. They’ll see what I am, by Allah, by every saint and prophet.”
Rashid and Daoud were there in Faranghi’s, waiting as they always were, with the shifting crowd of others who always came to the scent and the sound of princely largesse. The sun went down in prayer. The night fell in wine and roistering. The luck was on Hasan. He could feel it. Tonight would be his triumph. Tomorrow…
“I’ll go,” he said. “He thinks I’ll beg and grovel and cry to be set free. I’ll show him. I’ll go to the old monster in Arabia. I’ll be the greatest desert raider who ever was.”
They cheered. They called him by the name which Sheikh Uthman had given him, which for bright defiance he had taken for his own. “Al-Fahl! Al-Fahl! Al-Fahl!” The Stallion tossed his haughty head and bade the wine go round again. Music, song, bold and wanton women falling helpless before his eyes. The luck was singing in him.
Tonight, no backgammon. “Law,” he explained with care round the sweet stammer of the wine. “Law says no backgammon. Bones, O my beloved. Bones that dance and sing.”
They danced for him. Gold heaped for him. His hands were charmed tonight. They could not cast awry.
The emir was there, sweet sacrificial lamb. Dark oily slant-eyed Turk, soft prey for the Prophet’s child on whom were prayer and peace and precious, precious luck. Ten mares, he wagered. Double or none. On all that Hasan had. Poor victim. Hasan stroked his dancing beauties; crooned to them; laid his will upon them.
“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar: God is great, God is great! There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God. Come to prayer, O ye Muslims; come to prayer. Come to prosperity, come to prosperity. God is great. God is great. There is no god but God!”
The muezzin’s wail shattered Hasan’s spell. In the tavern was sudden silence: prayer rugs spread, heads bowed, backs bent toward Mecca. Infidels looked on, bored or interested or infernally amused. “Allah,” prayed Hasan with the dice in his hand. “Allahu akbar.” He cast. The dice rattled as they fell. Rolled. Settled in the stillness of the hour of prayer.
Eyes stared up at him, mocking him. Serpent’s eyes. Defeat; disaster. He saw his hand creep out. One touch while all eyes bent in worship. One small encouragement, for his own salvation.
His hand froze. An inch more, only an inch. There was no one to see.
He turned as all the others turned. He had nothing to pray for, except despair. But perhaps, afterward—one loss, one only. The luck would come back.
Fortified with prayer and wine, he was magnanimous in defeat. “Another cast?” he said. “In God’s name?”
The emir likewise could be generous, for a Turk. “Another cast,” he agreed. And another, and another. Hasan won a little. He lost rather more than a little. The next cast, surely, or the next…
In the end they left Faranghi’s. They had drunk all the wine he would let them drink. Faranghi the miser, Faranghi the fool. They found a more generous seller. His wine was stronger. It made them wild. Hasan had lost his embroidered coat, his belt of gold set with lapis and silver, his dagger with the emerald hilt. His purse was thin and frail. They were drinking it dry, his fine friends, his brothers in the blood of the vine. Their faces blurred. Their names were all one. “Thirst,” he said to them. “I name you Thirst.” They laughed. Good fellows. They always laughed at a prince’s jest. Even a prince whom luck had made its fool. “Sharif, I am,” he sang. “Sharif, sharif, blessed and beloved, scion of the Prophet’s tree. A sharif should be above reproach. A sharif should be a perfect saint. A sharif should be—should be—“
“Generous!” they cried.
His hand was full of silver. He cast it into the air. It fell like rain. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow, no more. No more rain. No more silver. No more anything.”
They were sad with him. They wept with him. They drank the wine he bought for them to make them sadder still. Weeping, groaning dirges, they wove out into the night. More wine; they needed more wine. They looked at Hasan. His hand delved into his purse. It came up empty. “No more,” he said. “All gone.” He giggled through his tears. “All gone.”
All. Silver, wine, friends. All gone. He stood alone under a shopkeeper’s torch and laughed and wept. His feet carried him somewhere. Not home. There was no more home. His head floated among the stars. He sang in his voice that had broken into sweetness. “O my gazelle, O my fawn…”
No gazelles in the street tonight. No fawns with painted eyes. They were all gone away. But shadows there were in plenty. He smiled at them. “Come,” he sang to them. “Come into my embrace.”
They smiled back. They came. They circled. They closed.
by Judith Tarr
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-034-7