A slave is always a slave, even if he volunteers to do his master’s bidding. A dung beetle may choose to alight on a flower, but no one will think it a butterfly.
I have volunteered to accompany my master on this journey. Let the other slaves remain behind to empty slop jars and scratch leeks out of the soil. Sanjar is pleased with me and he feeds me well in return, but I do not call myself anything but a slave. I bow, and kiss his ring, and carry those items I am bidden to carry. But I will not flick the tiniest speck of dust from his sandals unless he tells me to.
And I will find a way to be free one day.
Our journey will take many months. We left Persia a fortnight ago, and our caravan will trudge through the Syrian desert. One we have crossed those sands—who can say? The masters say they are following a star eastward. I have no use for their astronomy, nor for their other wise arts: philosophy, politics, the interpretation of dreams. Such follies are pastimes for men who blow their noses in silk.
Sanjar prefers to ride apart from the other travelers. He is a solitary man, given to daydreaming. So we ride ahead, and he tells me of his longings, using my name as if I were his friend. He tells me that we travel to pay tribute to a king of mercy and grace. He does not say if this king’s mercy extends to those enslaved by pampered philosophers.
I have as much use for kings as I have for the study of stars.
We rode today against a hot and bitter wind. When we camped for the night, I took it upon myself to give the animals some extra care. Dirt had crusted their eyes and mouths—despite my vow never to volunteer the work of my hands, I groomed them out of pity for their servitude. They did not choose to take this journey, nor to bear the burden of the masters’ gifts to this mythical king of justice.
And such gifts!
The other slaves have whispered to me of richly scented oils, of precious incense drawn from Persia’s resin-bearing trees. What will a king do with such perfumery? My master brings a gift finer still—so much gold that I feel certain he will not miss the coins that have found their way into the folds of my robe. Gold is a language spoken in every country. These coins may one day buy my freedom.
After I had seen to the comfort of the animals, I lay outside Sanjar’s tent, gazing at the night sky. All was still, save for the horses’ shuffling and the light snoring from within. I allowed myself to dream of freedom, of home, of family. Emboldened by the night, I began a plan for escape that I would set in motion when next the caravan passed near a city. Surely among the unknown gods who inhabit the stars, there was one who would listen to the petitions of a slave.
Covered as I was in a blanket of longing, I did not hear my master slip out of the tent until he addressed me.
“Do you see the star we follow, Hassan?”
I jumped to my feet and obediently followed his pointing finger. Low on the eastern horizon, one star pulsed with unusual radiance. Sanjar spoke with quiet intensity.
“It will be wonderful! There will be no more wars, no more evil, no more disease. Just think of it, Hassan! A kingdom of mercy and peace!”
I was silent. This pretty kingdom he spoke of was not for slaves. But my heart raced at his next words.
“Would you not give your last piece of gold, Hassan, to kiss the feet of such a king?” He touched the sleeve of my garment, where I had hidden a large coin.
Sanjar knew that I had stolen from him. He could kill me immediately, and not a person under the heavens would fault him. One less dung beetle, that is all. Yet in the moonlight, his face showed only compassion.
Has the kingdom of mercy arrived already, in my master’s heart?
And now I must decide—do I put my faith in stolen gold, or in an unknown king? My answer is in the stars.
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