"Do not tell a friend anything you would conceal from an enemy."
"There is, of course, the tale of the man who built a horse of ebony that flew through the air with its rider—"
"We've heard that one already. What about the tale of the three Sufi Qalandars who were each the sons of kings and also each blind in one eye?"
"That one was as old as a dried date when my father was a boy. If you want to hear a truly wondrous story, listen to me recount the tale of the rich man who bought a mermaid as his concubine only to discover—"
"No, I'll tell the tale of the fisherman who caught a jinni in his net!"
"What about the tale of the Sultan, his Son, his Concubine, and the Seven Wise Viziers?"
"The tale of the man whose wife tricked him into sifting dirt!"
"No, the tale of how a drop of honey destroyed two great empires!"
Arram talked over all the others: "What about a story of Haroun al-Rashid?"
Everyone looked at him. Arram turned red at the scrutiny. He buried his face in his wine bowl, but the others wouldn't let him back out now.
"You know a story about Haroun al-Rashid?" said the man sitting across from him, a merchant with a great black beard and an eye patch.
"Haroun al-Rashid, ruler of the city of Baghdad, Caliph of the Empire and Defender of the Faithful, May He Live for a Thousand Years, that Haroun al-Rashid?" said their host, a bald man who had once been a mamluk.
"Is there any other Haroun al-Rashid?" said Arram.
Everyone laughed, and Arram laughed loudest. He was not used to drinking strong wines, and he was not used to keeping the company of strangers late at night, but this was a special night, a night to celebrate, because after all, tonight he was in Baghdad, the shining jewel of all cities. Weeks ago, on his birthday, he decided that it was time to make his own way in the world, so he hid among the cargo of a slave ship bound for Tartus and there he escaped and joined a caravan traveling to Baghdad, City of Wonders. He'd arrived only hours ago and spent all day wandering the streets, staring at the great mosques with their soaring arches and jeweled minarets, at the crowds of exotic people crowding its spacious streets with their strange clothes and strange accents, and at the mighty waters of the flowing Tigris, once called the Idigna and the Palavi.
As night came on he fell in with this lot of travelers and traders whom the mamluk invited to his home to share food and wine. It was Ramadan, the holy month, and the Moslems of the city had abstained from repast all day. "It is only fitting," said the mamluk, "that just as we fast during the day we should enjoy good food and good wine and good company that much more of the night." So they sat in the belvedere of the mamluk's home, relaxing on embroidered rugs and drinking spiced wine and telling stories. Arram, giddy from his day of adventures, wanted to tell a story of his own, but he felt shy in the midst of these older, more worldly men. Now that the wine had gone to his head he'd finally spoken up.
"Well," he said, "my family line is Assyrian, but really I'm from Sicily, and even in Sicily we hear stories of the great caliph of Baghdad—"
"Do you hear that?" said the mamluk. "Even in Sicily they tell stories of our beloved caliph! Even in Sicily!"
The others muttered that yes, they had heard it, and the mamluk grinned as though he'd told them first. Arram continued:
"They say that on nights just like this the caliph disguises himself as a common man and walks among the people, talking to them and learning about them and finding wrongs to right."
"That's what they say in Sicily?" said the man on Arram's right, a mercenary of some kind.
"Hogwash!" said the man on his left, a noted traveling physician. "The caliph would never leave the safety of the palace."
"The caliph will do whatever he pleases," said the merchant with the eye patch. "What would you know about his comings and goings?"
"I know that if I were the caliph, I would certainly never leave the palace," said the doctor, and the others muttered their assent. "What if he were run over by a cart, or killed in a street brawl? Where would we be then, with our caliph dead in a gutter and no one even knows it, because which of us would even know the caliph if we saw him? I've only ever seen his face on coins or in murals, and that's nothing to go by."
"Well," said the man with the eye patch, "the boy didn't say that it was true, he said that it was a story, and I myself have heard such stories many times. For example, one night our beloved caliph, Haroun al-Rashid, Defender of the Faithful, May He Live For a Thousand Years, was traveling in disguise through the market along with his bodyguard, Masrur, and heard the tale of how a misunderstanding over a mere apple caused a man to most unjustly murder his wife..."
The man told his story and everyone ignored Arram, which was a relief. Then he saw the mamluk give him a signal, and he slipped away from the belvedere while the others were distracted with the merchant's story. Following the instructions whispered to him by the mamluk when they first arrived, Arram went down the adjoining hall to the room with the silk curtain over the doorway cleared his throat twice. A lovely round arm with a hand dyed in henna parted the curtain and beckoned him in.
The mamluk didn't just invite strangers into his home to entertain them with wine and stories during Ramadan; he also did it because he was the owner of the most beautiful slave girl in the entire city of Baghdad, maybe in the entire world (or so he said), and for a price he would sell her company for a night—because of course, being a mamluk he was also a eunuch, so her charms were wasted on him. Arram suspected that what he was paying for the privilege (nearly every dinar he had) was more than the mamluk would normally charge, but he didn't care. The women of the shining city were as famous as its mosques and its rivers and its wines and its caliph, and Arram was not about to leave Baghdad without seeing for himself.
The room he came into was small and dark, but furnished with soft cushions and thick rugs, and it smelled of incense and perfumes that made his wine-addled head swim. A woman with great dark eyes behind a transparent gold veil sat him down on the softest cushion in the room. She looked at the floor when she addressed him, the picture of demure virtue, but then she looked into his eyes in a way that made Arram feel like he'd been struck by a thunderbolt. She said she was Dalila, and that for tonight she was his, and would be as loyal and steadfast as the caliph's own concubine, at least until tomorrow morning. Arram was not sure this really made sense, but he wasn't going to argue the point.
He said that, if she was his, then the first order of business was to remove her veil. "As you desire, oh prince of my life," Dalila said, casting her veil aside and smiling. Arram's breath left him.
"I hope my humble features are pleasant enough for you, protector of my heart. But if not, perhaps I can make up for my deficiency in other ways?"
Arram was about to say that she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, but he stopped himself when he wondered what she meant by making it up to him. Laying him back on the cushions, she anointed his temples with sweet-smelling oils and fed him sharbats of rose and sandalwood and sang with a sweet, mild voice while he admired her body. Somehow, and Arram was really not sure how, it ended up that Dalila was positioned between his legs, with her henna-colored hands splayed on his thighs.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, my sweet lord?" she said.
Arram's tongue seemed to have stopped working. Dalila smiled wider.
"There's no need to be embarrassed, beloved sovereign of my affections. You are the defender of my virtues as surely as you are the champion of my heart. I am certain that nothing you could will me to do would be inappropriate. Surely the only inappropriate thing would be for me to leave your just and proper desires unfulfilled? Sit back, oh sultan of my soul, and allow me to satisfy all of your wishes, those spoken both overtly and clandestinely."
And with that she kissed him with honeyed lips while at the same time her hands slid up the inside of his thigh and cupped him, grinding her palm against his crotch. He gasped and his eyes widened. Dalila combed her fingers through his hair and painted his lips with sweet kisses, one after another. Arram could only lay back, slightly stunned, and then she began kissing his earlobes and neck. Whenever he gasped she giggled and flushed. Meanwhile, her hands were very, very busy, running up and down his body, her touch as light as feathers. He ended up shirtless without noticing, and the feeling of her warm, hennaed fingertips on his bare skin made him pant.
"You are a most miraculous man, oh dynast of my destiny," she said.
"Um," said Arram.
"There's no need to talk, my incomparable inamorato," she said. "Our hearts say more than our tongues ever could. Let us abandon these clumsy overtures and speak the true language we were both born to."
And then, suddenly, she was half-naked, the flickering candlelight reflecting off of her full, rosy breasts, which she offered to Arram by arching her back and sitting up higher. He reached out, cupping them and squeezing, finding them soft and warm. Dalila gasped and her eyes rolled back.
"You are so gentle, sweet arbiter of my ardor. Your merest touch inflames in me a desire which I am too modest to speak."
"Um," said Arram, again.
"Please, oh heavenly lord, if you would not have this poor girl die of longing for you, grant me but the smallest kiss on each of my fair breasts, so that I will know something of paradise while still an inhabitant of this meager earth."
And then she threw her arms around his neck and pushed her bosom into his face with such enthusiasm that Arram thought he might smother. His lips opened around one rosy nipple and he touched the tip of his tongue to it. Dalila was mounting him now, pinning him between her thighs. From elsewhere in the house he heard laughter and loud voices, but the heavy, ragged panting of the woman on his lap drowned most of it out.
Her hand was inside his pants and she grabbed hold of his throbbing, erect organ.
"Please forgive me for being so forward, overseer of my obeisance."
"That's okay," said Arram, voice cracking.
"Perhaps you have heard of one particular delight, known only to a few women of this great city, one which in fact was taught to me by the caliph's third wife and fourth favorite concubine, and which I would be happy to perform on you now?"
"What's that?" said Arram.
Dalila licked her red lips slowly. "I dare not speak it out loud, but if you will permit me to demonstrate..."
She slithered down the front of him until her head was in his lap, and she untied his pants and began to pull them down, and her mouth crept closer and closer until finally—
The man with the eye patch fell through the curtain, crashing to the floor. A second later the mamluk rushed in with a sword in his hand. Dalila jumped up and screamed. The merchant rolled over, tangled in the fallen curtain, helpless. The mamluk raised his sword, face livid, screaming "Infidel! Scum!" Arram, dazed, uncertain whether anything he was seeing was real, realized that if he didn't do something the mamluk would cut the other man's head off in less than a second. Without realizing what he was doing, Arram grabbed a censer and threw it; burning ash filled the room and the mamluk screamed, blinded.
"What are you doing, you ass?" said Dalila.
Arram was not sure who in the room she was talking to—really it was a good question all the way around. But he had no time to ponder the matter as the mamluk, red with rage, raised his sword again and now leveled it at Arram. The merchant jumped up, pushed the mamluk down, and shouted, "Run!"Arram managed to pull up his pants and grab his shirt before making his getaway. The two of them ran back to the belvedere, where the man with the eye patch went to the railing and said, "Jump!"
"What?" said Arram.
"It's jump or stay here," the merchant said as the mamluk charged in. The merchant jumped and, after hesitating for only a second, Arram jumped too.
He tried to land on his feet but, realizing that would only break his legs, he turned on his side instead. The landing pushed the air out of his body, as if he was being pressed by a giant hand. For a moment the world went red and black and the prospect of losing consciousness was not entirely unattractive, but the merchant hauled him up and pulled him along. They ran so fast Arram swore his feet didn't touch the ground.
After a while they stopped in an alleyway, and Arram looked himself over. Nothing broken or lost, it seemed. The only other people in the alley were a strange old sheikh leading a white llama on a chain, and another man of similar character leading a white dog. They regarded Arram with suspicion as they passed. The merchant removed his turban and wiped the sweat from his brow.
"Well," he said, "that was a close call. If he had jumped too, I don't think we'd have escaped."
"What was that all about?" said Arram.
"Our host and I had a spat," said the merchant, grinning. "I told a story about the caliph and he did not believe me that it was true. He called me a liar and I called him a dog, and things went downhill from there."
"Is there any story worth getting killed over?" said Arram.
"Yes," said the merchant, "a true one. But if not for you I certainly would have died for the truth. You saved my life."
"It was nothing," said Arram, though he actually thought it was quite a bit more than nothing.
"If I were an ordinary man, perhaps that would be true," said the merchant. "But you haven't just saved me, you've saved the entire city and all of the faithful."
To Arram's surprise, the merchant removed his eye patch and threw it away, revealing a perfectly healthy eye underneath. His beard, too, was false, and he disposed of it in some rubbish.
"What do you mean?" said Arram. "Who are you?"
"Haven't you guessed?" said the merchant, standing tall and winking. "I am Haroun al-Rashid."
Arram's jaw dropped. "You're Haroun al-Rashid? Ruler of the city of Baghdad?"
"Is there any other Haroun al-Rashid?" the man said, and laughed.
"But that's impossible!" said Arram.
"Is it?" said the man (caliph?). "You said yourself that the caliph often disguises as an ordinary man and walks the streets. Even in Sicily they say so, yes?"
"But where is Masrur, your bodyguard?"
"This being Ramadan, Masrur is busy at prayer. I thought that I could get into no particular trouble if I went out alone; and let's just see if I ever do that again."
Arram must have looked skeptical, because the alleged caliph now produced a fat purse and overturned it, spilling dinars into the street. "You see?" he said. "If I were not the caliph, would I have dinars in such abundance? Or would I have this ring, which is set with a ruby stolen from the heart of a rukh's egg I got from a jinni? Or perhaps this brooch, that once belonged to an ancient pharaoh of the Nile and contains a portion of his soul, will convince you? Could any man but the caliph cast such treasures at your feet, and think nothing of it?"
Arram was scrambling around collecting up the gold and jewels. As he turned over a dinar it occurred to him that there was a certain resemblance between the face engraved on the coin and that of the merchant. Arram looked back and forth between them. The man winked again. And it was very convenient that Arram was already on his knees, as it was a very convenient position for bowing before Haroun al-Rashid.
"Enough, enough!" said the caliph. "Tonight, I should bow to you; if not for you I'd be a caliph no more. Stand up, stand up."
Arram stood, knees shaking. He could be killed for talking to the caliph the way he had, or imprisoned for visiting a prostitute, but Haroun al-Rashid only clapped him on the shoulder and crammed more gold and jewels into hands.
"Take it all, take as much as you can carry. And now boy, how would you like a real reward?" said the caliph.
"You mean more than this?" said Arram.
"The best rewards are more precious than gold and jewels," said the caliph. "Come, walk with me, see my city, and tell me what brings you here all the way from Sicily."
They walked and talked, and the streets were bustling, for although it was the middle of the night Baghdad was known as the Night City, and it being Ramadan the faithful were eager to conduct certain business before the sun rose and the day's fasting began again. There were so many lights burning that the surface of the Tigris seemed ablaze with sorcerer's fire, and the stars in the sky were outnumbered by the countless lamps of Baghdad. Everywhere there were crowds of merchants, traders, porters, soldiers, scholars, guards, slaves, mamluks, holy men, faqirs, sheiks, ladies, thieves, Moslems, Jews, Christians, and Indoos.
And everywhere they went people were telling stories: the Tale of the Adulterous Wife and the Talking Parrot, the Tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Tale of the Thief and the Guardsman of Alexandria, even the Tale of Ali of Cairo, which Arram had once heard from his father on the condition that he never repeat it in the presence of his mother. Arram wanted to stop and listen to every story, but he had to hurry to keep up with the caliph.
"Tell me boy, do you like my city?" said the caliph.
"It's amazing!" said Arram. "It's everything I dreamed of, just like in all the stories." He paused, trying to eavesdrop on a dispute between two merchants both laying claim to a single shipment of silk, one alleging that it was the very same silk he had lost when shipwrecked on an island of man-eating giants and another claiming that it was the one stolen from him by the wicked sultan of a decadent city in the east.
"You like stories of Baghdad, don't you?" said the caliph. "Why don't you tell me one?"
Arram would much rather have asked where they were going, but he wasn't about to gainsay the caliph. "Well, there is the tale of the hunchback and how seven different people confessed to murdering him, although in truth he wasn't even dead."
"Seven?" said the caliph. "When I heard the story it was only four. Tell me how the story goes in Sicily."
So Arram told the story and the caliph listened, and they made their way through the Night City together. Soon they came to a place where there were so many lanterns that the sky was almost as bright as day, and Arram saw a palace with a domed roof all of gold.
"You have never see the Palace of the Faithful, have you boy?"
Arram shook his head.
"Well, you're about to see much more of it than most men ever do."
Haroun al-Rashid led Arram to an entrance far away from the main gates. Two strapping mamluks guarded this portal, but the caliph waved them aside simply by saying, "I am Haroun al-Rashid; let me through."
The interior corridor was all of marble set with lapis lazuli tiles, and burning censers lined the walls, emitting sweet-smelling smoke. Arram couldn't believe he was really in the palace, and his amazement grew when they came to the next room: Here was a chamber that seemed to be made of silks, with curtains and cushions and rugs and couches and beds and divans all in red and gold and purple. Reclining on each of these was a beautiful woman, each so graceful and refined that they made Dalila, who only an hour ago Arram would have called the most beautiful woman in the world, look like a common drudge.
These women wore translucent veils that shimmered like moonshine, and among them where were dark-eyed Persian girls, Indoo women with lips like coral, women from the Far East with skins of ivory, and beautiful women from the lands beyond the desert whose complexions were as dark as a moonless night. Arram thought for a moment that the mamluk must have killed him after all, because surely this could be no place other than paradise? But if Arram was in paradise then the caliph must be there too, because every woman in the room bowed at his feet, and when he bade them stand they all fawned over him, taking him to the most comfortable cushions and reclining with him, feeding him dates and telling him that they were honored by his visit and asking if there was anything, anything in the world, that he wanted?