Published by G. Wulfing at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 G. Wulfing
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Table of contents:
The vine had grown so long against the side of the palace that it had virtually become part of the palace wall. Its tendrils and branches had dug into any little opening or crack they could find, years ago outgrowing the big trellis that had originally supported it and was now lost, completely overgrown and probably broken under the weight of its denizen’s foliage. At its base, the vine’s stem had become a thick, twisting gnarl, so thick that it was like a tree’s trunk, lodged in the ground, about as high as two stacked footstools, where the vine had bent over under its own weight before growing upwards again.
The top of this woody bend was half disguised by leaves; a fact for which Afif was always grateful, as it meant that any scuffing that might be left by his boots as he stood on the top of it would be hidden by the leaves. The trunklike beginning of the vine was always the best place from which to start his climb.
Afif was almost sure that he never climbed the vine the same way twice: there were so many branches, so many potential handholds and footholds, that even if he climbed the vine a thousand times he would probably never need to use the same set more than once.
He was very familiar with the parts of the vine that lay below a certain windowsill, however.
It was a stunning night.
The air had cooled from the heat of the day, but was still warm enough to be comfortable. The stars were blazing so brightly that it seemed as though on most other nights they were half asleep. They seemed to focus on earth, beaming down on the desert sands as if to imbue the grains with their silver.
Afif could not sleep. Even inside the tent he could sense the stars.
He pulled on his soft leather boots and slipped out of the stable-boys’ tent. The stars greeted him with a silent shout: Why were you waiting in there? Come out and see us!
Afif gazed up at them, almost breathless at their magnificence. No one knew why the stars existed; perhaps it was to guide travellers; perhaps it was because they were the sands of the desert that was the sky, or the jewels flung into the sky by God Himself because they were too perfect for mortals to possess, or the souls of people who lived noble lives, as the legends said. Or perhaps something so beautiful as the night sky did not need a reason to justify its existence.
Afif wandered a few steps away from his tent, not thinking about where to go, just wishing to be closer to those stars. Around him, the other tents of the greeting party were as silent as the night sky. Even snorers must be quiet on such a night, if the stars wanted the night for themselves.
To his right, in the centre of the encampment, the great white tent of the sultan and his family lay, its silken banners barely shifting in the tiny, cool breeze. Afif avoided it: there would be guards awake inside who were habitually suspicious of people wandering around at night.
Afif glided through the shadows thrown by the other tents. The sultan’s tent was surrounded by the tents of cooks, grooms, guards, footmen and all the other servants required by a party of royals when they travelled South to meet a fellow sovereign. The shadows were black and defined, almost as sharp as the shadows cast by the moon when she was full. Tonight the stars had the sky to themselves, and they were trumpeting their glory.
Around the circle of tents were arrayed the animals: camels and horses, who would sound the alarm first if bandits appeared. Afif was automatically making his way to the place where he knew his horse was tied.
Suddenly he sensed someone moving toward him. In the shadow of one of the cooking tents, Afif froze, hoping he was invisible. It was not a crime to be walking around the camp at night, and he could always say that he needed to use the latrines, but it would be better not to be discovered at all.
The figure had also frozen. It appeared to be approaching from the opposite direction, and through the intervening shadows and ropes of the tents Afif could see that it seemed to be dressed in white. Perhaps it was someone who genuinely needed to use the latrines. They lay, however, if Afif recalled correctly, on the opposite side of the camp.
After a moment, the figure approached cautiously. It was not tall nor broad; perhaps a little taller than Afif. The stable-boy remained still, unsure if the figure had seen him or not.
Step by step, the figure in white came closer. Afif realised by its bearing that it was looking straight at him. There was no point in hiding, then, but still he remained where he was.
The figure paused, a few paces from Afif, regarding him, still partially obscured by shadow. The stable-boy suddenly realised that the white robes and turban were not plain linen but white silk. He was staring at one of the princes. And he was not showing proper respect.
Afif stepped out of the shadow of the cooking tent, rapidly dropped to one knee and bowed his head. He should perhaps offer a greeting, but he did not dare speak, partly out of fear of the prince and partly out of reverence for the stars who still seemed to command silence on this night.
“Who goes there?” inquired the prince, quietly but clearly.
“A stable-boy, Your Highness,” Afif replied, head still bowed. His name was not important to a royal.
“Oh.” The prince paused slightly. “Why are you out here at night?”
He sounded young, perhaps near Afif’s own age, but Afif still could not identify which of the princes he was. There were five of them, though only the youngest two were accompanying their father on this trip.
“I was trying to find the latrines, Your Highness, and I got confused.”
“I see.” There was a pause. “So was I,” the prince added.
“Erm, I think the latrines are on the other side of the encampment, Your Highness,” Afif offered.
“Yes, I think you are right.” The prince’s tones were cultured and he spoke well and gracefully, as all royals did; not that a stable-boy heard the voices of the royal family very often.
Neither the prince nor the stable-boy moved. Afif could not move until he was given permission, and the prince seemed reluctant to move.
“It is a beautiful night, though, is it not,” the prince offered conversationally.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Afif agreed, wondering what the prince was thinking.
Still the prince hesitated.
“Stable-boy, tell me where my horse Aruna is tied.”
Aruna. This must be Prince Zayn, then, who rode more often and seemed to love horses more than any of the sultan’s sons. He could frequently be seen at the stables, grooming his own horse and insisting that he tack and untack Aruna himself. Afif had seen this prince many times, but typically briefly and rarely at close quarters, as he was not the stable-boy in charge of Aruna. “Your Highness, he is tied with the other royal horses, in that direction.” Afif pointed to his left, through the tent whose shadow partially obscured the prince.
“Thank you. You may go.”
Afif bowed his head low again, then stood, backed away a few steps, and moved away into the shadow of the cooking tent. For the sake of appearances, in case the prince caught sight of him, he headed toward the latrines, though he didn’t really need them.
He suspected that the prince didn’t either, and he wondered why the prince had been outside alone in the night, but it is not for stable-boys to know every movement of their employers.
After visiting the latrines, Afif was still wakeful. The stars were still shouting their brightness down at the silent earth, and Afif knew that he would not be able to sleep. He thought again of visiting his beloved horse Shadows, whose black and white coat would be magnificent in the starlight.
He made his way to the horse-lines on the outskirts of the encampment.
There was Shadows, standing with the other horses, like a creature of shadow and starlight himself. He was awake, and nickered softly as he caught Afif’s scent.
Afif hushed him, stroking the horse’s black and white patched head. He murmured quietly to the animal, running his hands over Shadows’ mane and neck.
Then Shadows’ ears twitched backwards, as did the ears of a couple of the horses nearby, and in the same moment Afif heard soft hoof-falls in the sand. Afif caught his breath and froze in the shadows of the horses, hiding under his piebald’s neck. A horse was approaching slowly, on the outside of the horse-lines.
Afif peered around Shadows’ shoulder. It was the prince in white silk, leading his bay Aruna, who was saddled and bridled.
Afif did not breathe. The prince glanced at the line of horses – perhaps his eye was caught by Shadows, whose vivid piebald coat was even more striking in this starlight – and looked away; then he glanced again. “Who goes there?” he called quietly.
Afif hesitated. He might be suspected of mischief if he were caught, and the prince might be bluffing: he might not have seen the stable-boy clearly, but have only thought there might be someone there.
“I can see you,” the prince added calmly. “Show yourself.”
Afif came out from under Shadows’ neck and passed between him and the neighbouring horse, stepping beyond kicking distance of the horses’ rumps before he knelt and bowed his head to the prince. “I am the stable-boy from earlier this night, Your Highness,” he admitted.
“Why are you hiding amongst the horses?” the prince inquired.
“Your Highness, it was not my intention to hide.” Inspiration struck Afif. “One of the horses was looking a little unsettled this evening, Your Highness, and I wished to check on him.”
“I see.” For a moment, the prince regarded the stable-boy kneeling in the sand, then he glanced at his own horse. “Aruna and I are going for a ride,” he announced, still in quiet, clear tones. “Have you finished tending to the unsettled horse?”
“Er, yes, Your Highness.”
“Then you will accompany us.”
If Afif had wanted to go back to sleep, he would have been disappointed to hear that. Instead, he was elated. A starlit ride, on his own beloved Shadows, alongside that lovely fine bay of the prince’s?
“Yes, Your Highness,” he agreed obediently. “I shall saddle my horse.”
The prince gave a nod.
The vine was so old that it probably damaged the wall beneath it, perhaps to the point whereat if the vine were removed the wall would be weakened. Eventually, when the vine died, something would have to be done, of course; but who knew how long a plant that had survived so many years and grown so much stronger and more vigorous than the others of its kind might live? Besides, it was considered bad luck to kill a creature – plant or animal – that had this much strength and desire to live.
Tonight the night was warm, but gentle, and lit by a mild half-moon. The vine leaves were cool against Afif’s hands and body as he slowly, carefully climbed. Leaves brushed against his face as he pressed close to the vine. He had never fallen from the vine, but that did not mean that he never would. Each handhold and foothold must be selected with care.
The guards never saw him. This particular garden was not overlooked by guards, as it was enclosed on all four sides: by the palace’s white wall, which Afif was now climbing, at the top of the garden; on either side, by stone walls that separated this private garden from other parts of the palace grounds; and, at the bottom of the gently sloping garden, by another stone wall which separated the palace and its grounds from the stableyards. In the palace wall there was a beautiful door set in a keyhole arch, painted in elaborate patterns of blue and gold and green, with ornate iron hinges, that led into the garden, but though the stable-boy had never tried it he knew that at night it was always locked.
At the bottom of the garden, near the wall that backed the stableyards, grew a chinar tree whose topmost leaves could be seen above the wall by anyone standing in the stableyards. It was not difficult to scramble from the tiled roof of the long stable building to the top of the stone wall, and thence to lean out and down to seize with one hand a branch that reached toward the wall, and then to swing from the wall to grip the branch with both hands, then to climb a few branches down the chinar tree, and to jump from it to the lawn of the private garden.
Afif was nervous every time he climbed over the roof of the stable building, but the first time it had been terrifying. The stable building was not tall; only tall enough for the stables themselves and the stable-boys’ low-ceilinged loft above; but Afif was terrified that he would make a sound and be caught. The palace was quiet at night, unless some celebration or party was occurring, and one stumble or clattering, dislodged tile could alert other stable-boys, or palace guards. And Afif would have no excuse as to why he was climbing over the stable roof at night, heading toward the private garden of the sultan’s youngest son.
Riding over the dunes in the blazing starlight was as exhilarating as Afif had imagined. The horses’ ears were pricked, their eyes wide and eager, delighted to be cantering relaxedly in the cool of a night that was almost as bright as day. The world was illuminated with the cold, silver-white light of stars instead of the hot, red-gold light of the sun.
It was so bright that Afif could see colours. The smart bay of Aruna’s coat seemed deeper and richer in the starlight, and he could even make out that some of the jewels in the hilt of the prince’s dagger gleamed ruby-red when the starlight caught them as the breeze blew the prince’s robe back from his waist.
They rode in silence, aside from the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves in the sand and the occasional jingle of harness or snort of the horses’ breath.
As they reached the crest of a dune, the prince reined in his mount, and Afif drew rein beside him. Shadows shook his head happily, with a small snort of satisfaction, and Afif smiled inwardly, happy that his horse was pleased. Beyond them were more dunes, rolling forever in the night, a hundred huge black curving shadows with curving silver tops.
The prince was looking upward, and Afif followed his gaze.
The stars seemed brighter and closer than ever. Afif could almost hear them singing. They swallowed his gaze. Look at us! Look at us! We are so alive tonight!
A million, million of them. As many as the grains of sand that made up a dune. As many as the breaths a mortal might draw in a lifetime. As many as the hairs on a satin-coated horse.
For a long time, Afif and the prince stared at the stars in silence. Occasionally, one of the horses shifted his stance, but the riders’ eyes remained fixed on the sky above. Time seemed to have stood still for a while.
At last, the prince spoke.
“I think they are too beautiful to be human souls,” he remarked calmly, with a touch of wistfulness. “Surely even a good soul does not shine so purely.”
Afif looked at him, not knowing what to say.
If Afif had said such a thing, and someone had looked at him as Afif now looked at the prince, Afif might have felt the need to apologise for saying a thing that was so unusual. The other stable-boys would almost certainly have made fun of him for saying something so poetic, and this was one reason why Afif usually kept his thoughts to himself.
But princes do not need to apologise to stable-boys for speaking their minds.
“What do you think?” the prince asked Afif. “Have you ever met a soul that shone so beautifully as one of those stars?”
Afif thought for a moment, regarding his horse’s piebald mane and the dunes beyond.
“Not in a person, Your Highness,” he said, after a pause. “… But perhaps in a horse.”
The stable-boy was surprised when he glanced up and saw that the prince was beaming at him. Afif saw his dark eyes and white teeth.
There was a pause.
“Why is that, do you think?” the prince asked then. “Why are horses more beautiful, more noble, than we are?”
Afif thought some more.
“Because they are honest, Your Highness,” he ventured, still keeping his voice quiet as the night demanded. “They do not try to be anything other than what they are. But they try to be the best they can be. And they never scorn any other living thing for being what it is.”
Again the stable-boy risked glancing at the prince, and again he saw the prince beaming at him.
“A good answer,” the prince said softly.
Again, the two riders stared at the stars for a long time.
Afif reached the window: the tiny ledge was at the level of his head. He clung there. The window was flanked by wooden shutters with iron hinges, painted with the same colours and design as the door in the wall. The vine spread itself further, on either side of the large window and on up the wall, but Afif doubted that it was strong enough further up to bear his weight, even if he had needed or wanted to climb higher. Above him, reaching up toward the night sky, loomed the white palace, with its high smooth walls, and massive towers decorated with gold and topped with onion domes that glittered and shone in the sunlight. Reaching up, he rapped his knuckles quietly three times against the lattice.
There was a stirring from inside the chamber, and the sultan’s youngest son, the prince Zayn, appeared at his window. Swiftly he unlatched the lattice and folded it back into itself, then stood back.
Afif climbed a few footholds higher up the vine until he was able to place one booted foot on the wide stone windowsill. Shifting his hands one by one to grip the underside of the window’s head, he moved his other foot to join the one on the sill, then crouched for a brief moment, framed by the window, looking into the chamber of the prince. He stepped off the windowsill and into the soft-carpeted room.
The prince closed the lattice behind him, then embraced Afif and kissed him on the cheek, as was his wont. “Good evening, my friend.”
Moonlight streamed through the lattice, barring the prince’s figure with rough-cut stripes of shadow. The prince turned from the window and, using a small candle that sat on a low table by his bed, lit a lamp that sat next to it. The lamp had panes of glass in orange, red, green and gold, surrounded by iron that was pierced in graceful patterns, and it shone brightly, turning the walls into a warm rainbow to compete with the wan, colourless moonlight.
The prince’s chamber was spacious, beautiful, and richly appointed, with thick, elaborately patterned rugs, ornate furniture, detailed tapestries and hangings, and even a shelf of books and scrolls. The bed, which stood across the room from the window, was large and soft, with four lavishly carved wooden columns, covered with expensive textiles and many cushions, and curtained with velvet.
Having lit the lamp, the prince turned back to Afif. He plucked a piece of straw out of the stable-boy’s hair and showed it to him, with laughter in his dark eyes. Afif smiled, and the prince stepped to the window and tossed the straw out of one of the diamond-shaped apertures in the lattice.
“Sit,” he invited Afif, as always, and the stable-boy moved toward the silken couch with its embroidered cushions.
The prince Zayn opened a small cupboard and drew out a tray with two small glasses on it, one blue, one green, their patterns of gold tracery gleaming in the lamplight. From a heavy clay jug, he filled the glasses with cool sherbet, then brought the tray to the couch and served his guest the stable-boy.
Gazing up at the stars from the top of a dune, Afif could not remember a time when he had felt so alive. Galloping on Shadows always made him feel elated, more alive than anything else, but tonight the starlight itself seemed to have infiltrated his blood and was making it sing. Everything seemed more real: the feel of Shadows’ saddle beneath him, the way his weight rested perfectly balanced on the horse’s back, the faint cool breeze touching his skin and clothes and hair, the way the smell of hot sand succumbed to the emollient air of the night … Afif could feel every movement of Shadows’ body, he seemed to hear every creak of leather and jingle of harness almost before it happened, and his own body seemed so light that it could almost float away over the dunes below.
Beside him, almost within arm’s reach, the silken robes of the prince whispered faintly as the breeze moved them.
Even as Afif was thinking that it would be good to ride on some more, the prince touched his heels to Aruna’s sides and the bay moved forward eagerly. Afif and Shadows followed at once, and the four rode swiftly down the dune’s steep slope, their speed increasing on the long, long way down. The riders gave their mounts free rein, and Afif would have laughed aloud at the rushing of the sand, the way Shadows moved so freely beneath him, almost plummetting downwards, and that blazing, blazing starlight that was burning and singing in his blood; but still the night commanded quiet: the stars alone were permitted to shout this night.
The slope seemed to continue forever. Down, down into shadow, with the stars swinging above them, the sand rushing and hissing at their hooves, the breeze rippling manes, tails, and white silk. The horses snorted and puffed, ears pricked, nostrils and eyes wide. It was almost like flying.
At last they entered the shadow on the lowest part of the dune. The darkness seemed cold, as though they had entered a different world to that of the silver starlight above. The horses, almost galloping, slowed, until their riders drew rein. Horses and riders stood, panting somewhat.
The prince laughed softly, patting his horse’s neck, and Afif allowed himself to do likewise. High above them the stars still sang.
This night was magical.
As the moon drifted higher, the prince and the stable-boy talked. The stable-boy Afif knew more of events inside the palace walls than the sultan’s chief groom did, and he had to remember to say nothing when he heard the other stable-boys gossip about some rumour that he knew to be untrue, or some half-truth of which he knew the whole. The prince Zayn confided in him everything.
In the many months since the night of magical starlight when they had ridden together, the prince and the stable-boy had talked and drank, played games and read poetry. Carefully and passionately, the prince had taught Afif to read, and to play chess. They would sit on the broad stone windowsill, their backs against the sides of the window, with the lattice open, and Zayn would teach Afif the names of all the stars that they could see. Zayn’s books held many wonderful pictures and ideas, and the prince and the stable-boy would spend hours studying them and discussing them. Sometimes Zayn would smuggle up to his chamber a particular treasure that he wanted Afif to see – a sculpture, an etching, a tapestry or relic or jewel … Through the prince Zayn, the stable-boy who had never known anything other than stables discovered the vastness and depth and beauty of the world.
“Someday I shall teach you to write,” the prince said.
Zayn even brought food up to his chamber, so that the stable-boy could taste some of the delicacies of the palace. Fruits and vegetables that the stable-boy had never seen before, sweets and pastries that were familiar to the prince but never tasted by the servants who tended his father’s horses. Afif was introduced to wines and sweet liqueurs, antelope milk and the fermented honey drink known as mead. Zayn was eager to share his pleasures with Afif; and in doing so, he rediscovered and began to appreciate more the beauty and luxury that was natural and expected to him but strange and extravagant to Afif.
The riders looked back at the slope down which they had come, seeing the long trail of hoofprints and churned sand. Then the prince turned his horse toward the next dune. Most of the slope before them lay in black shadow, but the crest of the dune was bathed in pale starlight.
The prince urged Aruna forward, and the bay began the long, steady climb, with Afif and Shadows close behind, keeping to Aruna’s left so as to avoid the sand he kicked down.
Climbing in the dark was sombre, but every time Afif raised his eyes to the stars he felt alive again. He felt as though hunger, thirst and weariness were all impossible; as though the only thing he needed to sustain him was the starlight.
As the top of the dune approached, Afif saw the prince’s pale robes suddenly glow white as the starlight struck them, like the sun rising. Entering the starlight was like stepping into the dawn; suddenly the world seemed bright as day once more. The horses snorted and twitched their tails, glad that the long climb was over. Horses and riders stood once more beneath the singing stars.
Afif wished that this night would go on and on.
They rode further, unafraid, as though on this night there was no danger and nothing bad could happen: the stars would not permit it.
When, at last, the horses seemed weary, the prince said softly and reluctantly, “We must return.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Afif murmured, with equal reluctance.
The horses sensed that they were returning to the encampment, and their riders slacked the reins, letting their mounts choose their own way through the dunes and back to the camp.
“What is your name?” the prince asked as they rode.
“Afif, Your Highness.”
The prince processed this. “Hmm. It means ‘chaste’.”
“… Oh.” Afif considered this in his turn, not knowing what else to say.
“How old are you?” the prince asked next.
“I think fifteen, Your Highness.”
“I am fifteen also.”
The prince smiled at Afif. “Thank you for accompanying us this night, Afif.”
The stable-boy was taken aback at being thanked by one to whom his obedience should be taken for granted. “Er, you’re welcome, of course, Your Highness,” he fumbled.
After a long pause, the prince said, “I could not sleep this night, and I am glad.”
Afif hesitated. “Neither could I, Your Highness,” he risked confessing.
“Which horse was it who was unsettled?” the prince inquired.
For a moment Afif did not understand what he meant. Then he remembered, and realised that he would have to admit that he had lied to the prince earlier, or lie again to him now.
“Erm ––” he began, feeling sudden nervousness rise in his heart. What was the penalty for lying to a prince? Shadows, sensing his anxiety, twitched one black ear back at his rider.
The prince laughed softly, merrily. “Do not be afraid, stable-boy.” He looked at Afif, his dark eyes full of amusement and understanding. “I know you had to give me a reason for your wandering about at night. An unsettled horse sounded far more convincing than your simply not being able to sleep. I understand that sometimes a lie is easier for people to believe than the truth.”
Afif was silent in embarrassment, keeping his eyes on his horse’s piebald mane.
“For my part, I did not really need to use the latrines,” the prince confided. “… As I am sure you realised.”
Afif risked a glance up at the royal’s countenance. The prince was still smiling, and as he met Afif’s gaze his smile grew, showing those white teeth, encouraging Afif to relax.
Afif felt most of his nervousness drain away. He had never spent any time alone with royalty, until this night, but he was well aware that he was not permitted to be friendly; yet the prince seemed to be trying to reassure him that all was well.
At the encampment, the prince and the stable-boy dismounted. Afif held out his hand for the prince’s reins, but the prince refused. “No; I shall untack him myself.”
Aruna had been tied further along the horse-lines than Shadows, so Afif watched speechlessly as the prince led his bay away.
Afif unsaddled Shadows swiftly, as the horse drank eagerly from one of the water-buckets that were available to the horses at night. After giving the piebald a quick rub-down to remove saddle marks, and making sure that the horse was not so sweaty that he might catch a chill, Afif slipped away to where Aruna had been tied, intending to check that the prince, if he was not still with his horse, had not left saddle marks or other evidence on his mount. Princes could do as they pleased, but stable-boys who left the encampment without permission, or who allowed princes to ride out almost alone in desert where there might be bandits, could be punished, even if they were only doing as the prince had ordered. Indeed, stable-boys who rode out at night without permission, no matter in whose company, might be considered spies, for bandits or other enemies …
The prince was standing with Aruna, stroking the horse’s neck as the animal drank. The prince looked up as Afif silently approached. Again, just to be safe, Afif knelt on one knee and bowed his head. The fact that he and the prince had shared a secret and a ride, even a magical one, did not mean that he could shirk formality.
The prince beckoned Afif closer. “Check him to see that I have removed all of the saddle marks,” he ordered the stable-boy, who obeyed, running his hands over Aruna’s smooth coat to make sure that all tousled patches of hair had been brushed smooth.
“Your Highness, I think he is free of saddle marks,” Afif reported obediently.
“Good.” The prince gave his horse one final stroke, then stepped away. Afif noticed that he had set the saddle and bridle down correctly in their place, even rolling the embroidered saddle-blanket tightly to keep the sand out of it.
The prince looked up at the stars. They were still brilliant, but now Afif finally felt weary. Now he could sleep.
“Good night, Afif,” the prince said graciously. “I thank you again for your company this night.”
“Good night, Your Highness,” Afif murmured, bowing his head.
The prince turned and wove between the tents, heading toward the great white tent of the sultan.
Afif heaved a sigh, and picked his way slowly back to the stable-boys’ tent. Before he entered, he took one last long look at the stars. He might never again see them quite like this.
And that rushing, exhilarating ride through the dunes … There would most likely never be another ride like that.
Afif closed his eyes, feeling the starlight singing against his eyelids, and thanked God for such a night and such a ride and such a horse as Shadows.
Afif remembered quite clearly the time when Prince Zayn had first invited him to visit him in his chamber.
Afif had been cleaning out one of the stables when Prince Zayn led Aruna past the doorway. The sound of hooves walking on the sunlit paved yard stopped, and a voice said quietly and clearly, “Stable-boy.”
Afif looked up from his pitchforking.
The prince came closer, leading his horse into the doorway of the stable, and stood just inside the doorframe, within three paces of Afif. “Are you the stable-boy Afif?” the prince asked softly, under the noise of the surrounding stable activity, dark eyes gazing intently upon Afif’s face as he sought to determine whether the face of the stable-boy before him was the same as the face of the boy in the starlight.
“Yes, Your Highness.” Afif remembered to bow low, hoping that the prince would pardon him for not kneeling on the soiled straw.
“Do you know where my bedchamber is?”
Afif blinked. “Erm … no, Your Highness.”
“The wall at the bottom of my garden is close behind this stable building. If you were to climb over the stables roof, at night, in secret, you could reach the top of that wall. There is a chinar tree that almost touches the wall, and if you were to climb down it you would find yourself in the walled garden upon which my bedchamber window looks. There is a great vine that climbs the palace wall and reaches up beyond my window. If you can climb it, you could enter my chamber through the window. I have climbed it myself; it will hold you.” The prince paused briefly, allowing Afif to absorb all this. “I would like to talk with you, as we did on that starlit night in the desert.”
Afif was staring, astounded. He could not help it.
Prince Zayn was looking at him somewhat hopefully. “It is an invitation, not a command. You are free to visit me, or not, as you choose. I will not be offended if you refuse.” Though Afif thought he saw a hint of disappointment in the prince’s face at the thought of his invitation being refused.
“I am sorry that it must be in secret.” The prince began to retreat, pushing his horse’s chest in a command to move backwards, and as horse and prince left the shade of the stable doorway the prince glanced back at Afif pleadingly and whispered, “Please come, Afif!”
Then horse and rider were again in bright sunlight, walking away.
Though he was mystified by this strange invitation, Afif was also curious. Perhaps some of the starlight from that magical night had stayed in his veins and made him bold.
So, although he was very much afraid, that night he found himself waiting awake until he was sure that all the other stable-boys were asleep before beginning his adventure.
Afif had climbed trees often enough; there were many shade-trees in the horse fields. That afternoon he had calculated his safest route onto the roof of the stable building. It would not be easy, but Afif felt that he could do it, and reasonably quietly.
Fearfully, expecting every moment to feel a tile slide away underfoot, he had crept along the gently sloping roof toward the chinar tree’s leafy head. The moon had been less than half full, making shadows murky.
For one who was used to vaulting onto horses’ backs, it was easier to vault onto the wall that rose past the roof of the stables than it was to creep silently along the tiled rooftop. Sitting atop the wall, Afif had regarded the chinar tree’s branches, wondering if he trusted any of them.
At last, crouching, he had dared to grasp the stoutest branch he could reach, half-falling from the wall to hang from his hands among the leaves. With a rustle that seemed nerve-wrackingly loud in the quiet of the night, the branch sagged under his weight, but did not crack or groan.
Swinging and scrabbling, Afif had made his way down the tree to a point wherefrom he could jump to the lawn below.
He froze in the shadow of the chinar tree, amazed to find that he had done it: he was in the private garden of a prince. He was within the palace walls.
Never had he expected to find himself in a royal’s private garden.
To his surprise, no alarm was sounded. No one seemed to have noticed his gymnastics at all.
He had rested there for a moment, daring to lean his back against the trunk of the chinar that had granted him safe passage down from the wall, placing his palms behind him on the rough, living trunk. Then, relieved, but with his heart pounding in his ears and mouth, Afif had hastened up the soft-grassed, slightly sloping lawn of the garden, past sweet-scented fruit trees and shrubs and a small, tiled fountain, toward the palace, where, as he had seen from the top of the wall, the massive vine was hugging the palace wall.
And nervously he had begun his climb, expecting at every moment to hear an accusing shout from a palace guard, or for the vine to give way and send him crashing down to death or injury or discovery. Afif was grateful that neither stars nor moon were bright this night: there was enough light for him to see sufficiently, but no more.
Once at the latticed window the stable-boy hesitated, reluctant to let go of the vine in order to knock on the lattice, but equally reluctant to call out and risk being overheard. At last, deciding that it was as risky to continue to cling there as it was to take one of those actions, he plucked up the courage to knock briefly on the lattice.
He heard stirring from inside the chamber, and someone hurried to the window. Eagerly, Prince Zayn drew back the lattice. “Afif! You came!”
The prince himself gripped the stable-boy’s linen tunic to keep him from falling as he negotiated his way fearfully and awkwardly through the window. Once standing on the soft rug, Afif had looked at the prince with a mix of perplexity, trepidation, and triumph.
“Thank you for coming,” the prince had said sincerely.
It had taken the stable-boy some time to become accustomed to the prince’s beautiful chamber.
The first time Zayn invited him to sit, Afif had looked around nervously before seating himself cross-legged on one of the rugs.
The prince had looked at him with amusement and a touch of perplexity. “This is not a tent, Afif; we can sit on the couch instead of on the floor.”
“Oh. Er – Your Highness, I – will I not make your couch dirty, and smell of horse?”
The prince shrugged. “I love the smell of horse. And you do not look so dirty to me.”
Even more nervously, feeling more and more out of place, Afif perched on the edge of the silken couch, and clasped his work-toughened hands in his lap.
When the prince offered him sherbet in the beautiful, green, gold-patterned glass, the stable-boy took it reverently. He had never seen such a glass. Nor had he ever been treated like an honoured guest. Stable-boys were expected to fend for themselves, even when accompanying their master’s horses to other sovereigns’ abodes.
But he was completely flustered when the prince sat down on the same couch. Afif stood hastily, still clutching his glass, confused and astonished.
The prince looked up at him in mild surprise; then he seemed to register the source of Afif’s confusion. “Afif, please, sit. You are not serving here tonight. You are a guest.”
Still Afif was bewildered. The prince stood beside him, and looked into his eyes. “Afif, I want us to be friends,” he explained. “I did not ask you here as a stable-boy; I asked you here as someone of my own age whom I would like to befriend.”
Afif stared back at the prince mutely for a long moment.
Then he asked, “Why? I mean, ‘why, Your Highness’?”
“Because I have so few friends. Because you seem to love horses, as I do. Because I want someone to talk to, and you seem to speak well and have understanding beyond many that are our age.
“So please, sit. All I ask of you is some conversation. … Sit, and be my guest, and talk with me for a while.”
Slowly, amazed, Afif seated himself again on the silken couch, and the prince retook his seat also.
“Tell me about your horse,” Prince Zayn invited. “He is very beautiful.”
And, in later times, Afif marvelled at the prince’s cleverness in asking him about the one thing he would delight in talking about with anyone for any length of time.
After an hour or so of talking of horses, Afif was starting to relax, and to enjoy his lavish surroundings. The prince was a good conversationalist, and talking with him began to feel pleasurable. It was a privilege, surely, to be the private guest of a son of the sultan.
At length, when both were beginning to feel drowsy despite the excitement of their night-time meeting, Zayn said, “I must not keep you from your sleep any longer, Afif. But will you come again to talk with me sometimes?” He looked hopefully at the stable-boy.
Afif nodded. “Of course, Your Highness. When would you like me to come?”
“Not tomorrow night, but the next, if you can and are not otherwise inclined,” the prince suggested.
Afif had never been addressed so gracefully and respectfully. “Certainly, Your Highness,” he fumbled, feeling as though he ought to bow, but to do so whilst sitting would be awkward.
Prince Zayn smiled, stood, and took the stable-boy’s empty glass from him. “Thank you, Afif.”
He paused, gazing down at the glass in his hand, and a slight frown lowered his dark brows and creased his forehead. “There is something I must make clear to you, Afif, though it does not please me at all.” He paused briefly, and gave a small, displeased sigh. “My father the sultan would not, I think, approve of my spending time with a stable-boy. I wish there were some way to say that in a manner that is not insulting to you, but I can think of none. I do not wish to insult you, Afif, but I do believe that if my father knew that I have arranged to meet with you he would forbid it.
“I am sorry.”
There was a pause.
“I-I do not wish to get you into trouble, Your Highness,” Afif began.
Prince Zayn shook his head. “I am the one who invited you here; it is I who would be punished for it. I would make sure of that,” he added with certainty, looking Afif in the eyes for a moment.
“But we must be sure that we meet in secret, and that no one knows of our meetings. My father cannot forbid that of which he knows nothing.” A mischievous twinkle appeared in the prince’s dark eyes. “You are my secret, Afif. My secret guest.”
Afif could not visit the prince every night, of course; sometimes there were noise and lights late into the night as some party or social event took place; on other nights, Zayn and Afif simply needed to sleep. Occasionally, bad weather meant that the window’s shutters must be closed, and it was inadvisable to climb a rooftop, a wall, a tree and a vine. So about every third or fourth night, Afif would make the dangerous, though short, journey to visit his friend the prince. They arranged a code for use when necessary: a white silk scarf hanging from the lattice at dusk meant ‘don’t come’; a lantern left in the window at dusk meant ‘please come’. On nights when neither was apparent, Afif was not expected but always welcome, though he might have to take the risk that Zayn were asleep. The prince began to leave his lattice unlatched, so that when this happened, Afif could let himself in stealthily rather than make too much noise in trying to rouse Zayn. The sleeping prince usually heard the quiet sounds of Afif climbing in through the window, and would be awake by the time Afif’s soft-booted feet touched the rug. Occasionally, however, Zayn would be sleeping particularly deeply, and Afif would be treated to the sight of the sleeping prince, his face innocent and relaxed in slumber, looking several years younger than fifteen. Afif would wake him gently – “If I am asleep, please wake me,” the prince had said – to be greeted with a drowsy hug and kiss as soon as the prince sat up in bed. Secretly, Afif treasured those moments, for in them he felt as he imagined a brother must feel.
Afif had no family. When the prince asked him, on his first visit, about his family, Afif told him the truth: being a stable-boy was all he could remember. He could not remember living anywhere else. The previous chief groom, who might have known something about Afif’s origins since he was one of the first people of whom Afif had memory, had died when Afif was very young, and anything he may have known about Afif had died with him.
Perhaps Afif had been born in the stables; born of the straw and the sound of horses breathing.
When the prince visited the stables to ride, Afif and the prince behaved just as they had before he and the prince had come to know each other personally; before that starlit night when the world had become magical. Only when he was sure no-one was looking did Afif risk a glance up at the prince’s face, or allow his hand to brush briefly against the prince’s boot once he was mounted.
Once, Zayn was sent away for two months, to a nearby noble’s palace to learn more of the art of swordsmanship. Afif missed him, feeling lacklustre without his night-time conversations with the educated prince. To give himself something else to occupy his mind, he began to carve, with a strong sharp knife used for various tasks around the stables, a small wooden horse to give to the prince. He made several, each one an improvement on the last, until the fifth horse was completed two days before the prince was due to return. On the night that the prince returned, Afif was joyed to see the colourful lantern beaming in the prince’s window.
The prince was delighted with the gift of the wooden horse, and even more delighted to be with Afif again. He had much to tell of the journey, the things he had learned and seen, and the books that he had discovered in the noble’s library. Afif had travelled occasionally, as part of the sultan’s retinue, but once at their destination he rarely saw much more than the stables.
“Prince Zayn, why do you so enjoy seeing me?” Afif asked once, soberly, as he and the prince sat in the prince’s windowsill, their backs against the sides of the window. On a low table lay the remains of the quail’s eggs, pomegranates and white grapes that the prince had shared with his guest.
The prince smiled at him, dark eyes gleaming in the night. “Because so much of my life is controlled. Everyone knows my whereabouts, most of the time, lest I be abducted or endangered somehow. Most of the things I do are done because they are expected of a good, well-bred prince. Everything I do is constantly being evaluated against that measure, even if people never say it.
“But you are not measuring me. When I am with you, I am just a person, not a prince. I am free just to enjoy life, for the moments when I am with you.
“And no-one knows about us. My friendship with you is something I have chosen, not something that has been chosen for me. My father did not guide me to you; no teacher recommended you to me; I chose you because I like you. There is no other reason.”
The prince paused.
“And for that reason, Afif, you are perhaps the purest thing in my life.”
There was another, longer pause.
Then Prince Zayn asked, “And you, Afif? Why do you risk your body and your life, night after night, to come and visit me?”
Afif thought deeply, for a long moment.
“Because, Prince Zayn, you are an adventure.”
The prince grinned deeply, his white, dark-eyed grin.
On the third time Afif visited the prince, he responded to the royal’s greeting of, “Good evening, Afif. Thank you for coming” as always with, “Good evening, Your Highness.”
“You can call me by my name, Afif,” the prince replied, as they stood by the window’s dusty starlight. “We are friends now, are we not?”
Afif was silent in embarrassment.
“Can we not be friends?” the prince asked softly.
“C-Can we be? I mean – is it permitted?” Afif asked hesitantly.
“I permit it.” The prince smiled, somewhat humorously, at Afif.
“But, Your Highness, your father –– Is it right for a prince to make friends with a stable-boy?”
There was a pause. The prince looked away for a moment, uneasily.
“I will not pretend that my father would like it,” he said quietly. “But he is not the sultan of my life.
“He rules everything, but he tells us that if we are ever to rule after him we must ourselves know how to rule. And we cannot do that if we have never ruled anything ourselves. We must therefore rule our own lives in preparation for ruling others’.”
The prince smiled at Afif. “So I make it a princely decree that thou and I may be friends.”
Afif smiled back, though he still felt uncertain.
“Besides, no one will see us,” the prince added. “And I promise you, Afif, that if ever we were to be discovered I would take all responsibility for our friendship and our meetings. We could say that I ordered you to come and visit me and ordered you to keep it secret.”
“Would – would your father punish you?” Afif asked, with some anxiety.
Zayn shrugged, turning away to light the lamp. “Perhaps. It would not be the first time.”
He looked at Afif with dark, mischievous eyes in the swelling lamplight. “This is worth the risk, Afif.”
The prince turned his attention to a small, ornate, silver dish, which appeared to be laden with squarish chunks of something white, on the low table beside his bed. He picked up a small knife and sliced into one of the chunks, halving it. “Do you like loukoum, Afif?”
“What is it?” the stable-boy asked.
Zayn glanced at him briefly, as though mildly surprised that anyone would be unfamiliar with loukoum.
“A sweet. A delicacy. Try some.” The prince picked up a slice in his fingers and placed it into Afif’s mouth before the stable-boy could react.
The stuff was covered in a white powder, and when Afif bit down on the lump in his mouth a sweet stickiness filled his mouth and made his tongue feel astonished. It was sweeter than anything he had ever tasted, and its sticky consistency clung to his teeth in a way that forced him to chew the delicacy thoroughly before he swallowed it. And there was a thick, luxuriant scent of roses.
The prince watched him with pleasure. “Good, is it not?” he asked, when Afif had swallowed.
Afif nodded emphatically, still tasting the sweetness and the stickiness and the roses in his mouth, and the prince smiled, and offered him the dish.
Afif picked up one of the powdery lumps carefully between his fingertips. “Thank you, Your H–– I mean – Zayn,” he said.
The prince smiled again.
The prince always greeted Afif with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek, as Afif had seen men greet each other in the marketplace. The prince never seemed to notice the fact that his beautiful expensive clothes were brushing against stable-boy garments that invariably had a certain amount of dust, horsehair and perhaps straw on them. Afif always returned the embrace, though it was many nights before he ceased to feel strange about touching someone whom he had always been taught to treat with deference and distance.
“Why do you never kiss me in return?” the prince demanded suddenly one night, sounding both hurt and piqued, as they stood by the moonlit window through which Afif had just entered.
Afif was taken aback.
“B-Because – Your Highness – only equals are allowed to kiss royalty on the cheek, surely,” the stable-boy fumbled. He had rarely seen royals greet each other, but he seemed to remember that, when he had seen it, only those of royal blood kissed each other on the cheek. Nobles kissed royalty only on the hand, while those of lesser status knelt or bowed and did not touch the royal person at all.
“You are my friend, Afif. We can be friends only with our equals, as the philosophers say; so if you are my friend then you must also be my equal.”
The prince smiled suddenly in mirth, knowing that his logic was backwards and that Afif would know this too.
“And if you call me ‘Your Highness’ again, I shall throw you out of this window,” he informed Afif humorously but pointedly, holding an emphatic finger upright between himself and the stable-boy.
“Yes, Your H––” Afif began submissively, then playfully stuck out his tongue to stop himself. Zayn laughed, and slapped the stable-boy’s cheek softly.
“So kiss me now, to prove that you will remember,” Zayn challenged his friend.
Afif suddenly realised that he had never kissed a person before. He hesitated, dropping his gaze to the floor.
“What is wrong?” Zayn asked him, head cocked.
“I – Your Highness, I – ach, I mean Zayn – I – I have only ever kissed horses,” he confessed, suddenly feeling himself blush. Zayn was a sultan’s son, with brothers and father and mother and friends and many acquaintances and subjects who must greet him frequently. Since birth he must have known how to give and receive kisses, and what a human embrace felt like. Afif, the stable-boy, had no family and his only friends were horses. Afif suddenly felt meagre and impoverished.
There was a pause. Instead of remarking on how curious a thing it was to never have kissed another human being, the prince was silent, and Afif could feel Zayn’s studying eyes on his face.
The silence stretched. Afif felt more and more ashamed and ridiculous. Somehow, the knowledge that he had never kissed another person in his life made him more worthless and contemptible than his lowly station, his lack of parents, or his shabby, dusty, horse-smelling clothes. What was such a creature as he doing in the chamber of a prince? How could such a person as Zayn wish to befriend someone as wretched as Afif?
“Well then,” Zayn said quietly, at last; “this moment is special.”
Afif began to raise his head.
“And I,” the prince continued, “am honoured, Afif, to be your first friend who is not a horse. And to rank in your affections alongside such a magnificent beast as your beloved Shadows.”
Afif stared at him.
The prince was not mocking him. The dark eyes were utterly serious, almost fierce, in their gaze.
The prince stepped forward and embraced Afif closely. He kissed the stable-boy on the cheek.
Afif swallowed, hesitated, then awkwardly placed a quick kiss on the prince’s cheekbone. He was surprised by how warm and soft a boy’s skin felt compared to a horse’s hard, flat-haired forehead, velvety muzzle, or muscular neck.
The prince seemed to smile, and squeezed Afif more closely.
Afif swallowed again, and fought against the tears that were welling in his eyes. He did not want to make it even more obvious to the prince how unfamiliar to him it was to give and receive affection from one of his own kind.
Zayn released his embrace. Afif lost his battle, but the prince casually turned toward the window and leaned on the sill, regarding the night sky and his darkened garden, humming softly to himself, while Afif stood to one side and a little behind, wiping away tears that kept reappearing.
One night, the prince shared with Afif the celebrations that would be held for his sixteenth birthday, in a few days’ time. There would be a party at the palace, with a banquet to be held in the early evening. Afif listened agog as the prince related some of the preparations that were in process, the entertainments that would be offered and the dishes that would be served. Guests would be invited from among the nobles in the sultanate, though not as many as were customarily invited for the birthday of the eldest prince, the heir to the sultan.
The prince paused in his telling, and frowned. “It is a source of great annoyance to me that I cannot invite you, Afif.”
There was a short pause. Afif said nothing; it is not for a stable-boy to wish that he could attend the birthday of a prince; but that did not stop Afif wishing.
“When is your birthday?” the prince inquired.
Afif blinked. “Erm … I do not know, Zayn. … I don’t know when I was born. I know when Shadows was born, and since your gracious father allows his servants to have their birthdays free for themselves, ever since Shadows was born the chief groom uses his birthday as mine.”
Prince Zayn thought for a moment.
“Shadows and I spend the day together,” Afif added. “We usually ride through the marketplace and around the city, to see the sights.”
“Who gives you gifts?” the prince asked.
Afif looked at him in puzzlement. “We are not princes, Zayn! Stable-boys only get gifts from their family, and I have no family. But I always buy some apples for Shadows.”
On the night of Prince Zayn’s birthday, Afif found himself glancing longingly toward the palace several times during the course of the evening. The stable-boys could distantly hear the sounds of music, carrying in the evening air, and the lights of the palace blazed; as happened many times a year, for the birthdays of all members of the royal family as well as for other celebrations. As always, the stable-boys were ordered by the chief groom to stay out of the way.
Afif had always wanted to see what a royal celebration was like – who among the stable servants did not? – but this time his idle wish was transforming into curiosity and desire. Prince Zayn would be there, in his palace, enjoying the music and the banquet and the entertainments that he had described to Afif, surrounded by guests in their finery, no doubt receiving wondrous gifts …
Zayn would tell him all about it tomorrow, Afif assured himself. And of all the stable-boys, Afif would be closest to knowing what a prince’s birthday celebration was like.
Sure enough, on the following evening the brightly coloured lantern burned in the prince’s window. Eagerly Afif climbed the vine that night, wondering if Zayn might show him some of the gifts he had received.
As always, Zayn greeted him; then he ushered the stable-boy toward a low table near the silken couch. Upon the table, which was clothed by an elaborately embroidered cloth, rested dishes of delicacies and ewers of drink, surrounding the prince’s multicoloured lantern. To the right, a pile of items that Afif had never before seen in the prince’s chamber winked and gleamed in the lamplight.
“What …” Afif began.
Prince Zayn smiled. “My friend, would you allow me to share some of my birthday with you?”
On another night, as Zayn and Afif sat in the prince’s window, regarding the stars and the silver crescent of the moon, a nightingale began to sing, clear and loud in the prince’s garden.
The bird’s song was hypnotic and beautiful. Prince and stable-boy alike sat in silence, engrossed by such mastery. Afif had heard the nightingale’s song many times, as he lay in the loft above the stables, surrounded by sleeping stable-boys; but this time the song floated ethereally over the prince’s scented garden, and it was uninterrupted by prosaic noises such as the snort or stamp of a horse or the snore or sigh of a stable-boy.
As the night-singer’s music continued, Afif realised that he was weeping. After a while he looked sidelong at the prince, and saw that he too had tears gleaming in his eyes.
Feeling his gaze, the Prince Zayn likewise glanced at him, but neither spoke.
The prince Zayn was quite handsome, Afif thought, with his large, very dark eyes, strong straight nose and white teeth. He was slightly taller than Afif, with a clear forehead, sculpted features, and black, wavy hair. Though he was not yet eighteen, he moved with confidence and grace, as one who does not have to hurry nor justify his existence; but he was without presumption, self-importance, arrogance or conceit. He spoke with Afif as with an equal, and his influence and friendship gave Afif greater confidence in himself.
Although their friendship was secret, and must presumably remain so forever, Afif was no longer just a stable-boy: he was a friend of a member of the royal family; a friend of a gracious, cultivated prince. Although he must never let it show – and some days he had to remind himself repeatedly of that fact – it was difficult not to feel proud that of all the stable-boys the prince could have befriended, it was Afif whom he had chosen.
Even if the prince would have invited any stable-boy to accompany him on that ride in the starlight, the prince’s decision to follow that with an invitation to his chamber was pure compliment.
One night, after Afif had finished pointing out to the prince as many of the stars and constellations as he could identify, the prince smiled. “Good. You now know all the ones that I know.”
The prince and the stable-boy sat in silence for a while; and Afif dared to ask a question that had been sitting in the back of his mind ever since that starlit night in the desert.
“Zayn … why did you tell me to ride with you in the starlight on that night in the desert?”
The prince gave a small shrug. “I am not sure. Perhaps I felt that if bandits came upon us, I would need another rider to go for help. Perhaps I wanted to make sure that you did not cause trouble by telling someone in the camp that I had run away, or that I was taking rides alone at night and therefore might be a spy. Perhaps I wanted to ensure that you yourself were not up to mischief or wickedness, alone in the night.
“Or perhaps part of me knew that you, like me, could not sleep. That the stars were burning in your blood and singing in your ears as they were burning and singing in mine.
“Perhaps Almighty God told the stars to tell me that I should take you with me, because you and I would become friends.”
The prince smiled at Afif. The stable-boy smiled back. It was a wonderful thought, that their friendship might have been destined.
There was silence for a while.
Then Afif asked,
“Zayn, why did you come to me in the stables and invite me to visit you here in your bedchamber?”
“On that night,” the prince said slowly, “when we were riding on the dunes, I looked at your face, and I believed that you were feeling exactly what I was feeling.” He paused.
“It may have seemed that we did not speak much, but I felt that we had both said more than that which our words conveyed.”
Years passed, and still Afif and the prince Zayn managed to keep their meetings secret. They learned more and more from each other, and each began to view the other as a treasured companion.
Afif began to find the conversation of the other stable-boys rather tedious and uninteresting. He had always suspected that he might be more intelligent and more thoughtful than most of them, which was one of the reasons why he had always preferred the company of horses, but now more so than ever. He could never speak of anything the prince had shown him, and he had to keep secret his ability to read.
Afif tried to be patient. This was the price of being a stable-boy who was friends with a prince. The price of learning the things that he had learned was keeping them secret.
Nevertheless, it was frustrating. For the first time, he began to feel that his full potential, his whole self, was not being used in the job of a stable-boy.
Zayn and Afif often found it most comfortable to read a book together when lying down side by side. The desk in Prince Zayn’s chamber was designed for only one person to be seated at it, and holding one of the prince’s large, heavy books between two people whilst they were seated on the couch was awkward and uncomfortable. So the prince would toss some of his many, colourfully embroidered and patterned cushions onto the floor, and he and the stable-boy would lounge in them with the book laid on the rug before them.
On this night Afif could scarcely keep from yawning as the prince took his turn in reading aloud. The low, warm lamplight, the prince’s quiet, cultured tones, and the fact of being sprawled in many comfortable cushions did not make it easier for him to feel awake.
“You are tired,” the prince observed. He sighed wistfully. “I wish you could stay and sleep with me.”
“I very much doubt that your father would think it appropriate, Your Highness,” Afif observed dryly.
Zayn sighed again, heavily, and hugged a purple velvet cushion. “My whole life is governed by what others think appropriate,” he grumbled resignedly. “Today my father told me that it was ‘inappropriate’ for a prince to ‘amble’ around the courtyard feeding pigeons ‘like a monk’.” He plumped his chin into the cushion.
Afif chuckled despite himself. “Perhaps you should have strode masterfully around the courtyard ordering the pigeons to kneel before you as you bestowed upon them your largesse,” he suggested playfully.
Zayn rolled his eyes. “Yes, my father would have liked that.”
He rolled onto his back, still hugging the cushion, and regarded the painted ceiling.
After a moment he said, “I have looked at the monks and beggars in the marketplace, and I have wondered what it must be like to have nothing.
“And I have read the philosophers who say that to have nothing is to have everything you need; that to have everything is still to have nothing; that we do not even own the breath in our lungs, because someday it too will be taken from us.
“And I have wondered why, then, I was born with everything. Why do I have everything while others have nothing?”
He looked at Afif.
“Because you were born a prince,” Afif replied simply. “I was born a stable-boy, and the beggars were born beggars. The pigeons were born pigeons, and the monks were born monks. We are only what we are.” He shrugged.
“Then, if we are only what we are born to be, are the philosophers right when they say that to be free is to be happy in one’s chains?” Zayn asked softly, his eyes, dark as ever in the lamplight, staring into Afif’s.
Afif nodded slowly and thoughtfully. “I think, if the monks can be happy with nothing, and if pigeons can be happy being pigeons and horses can be happy being horses, then happiness and freedom are the same thing. If you can be happy in a cage, then freedom doesn’t matter.”
Zayn rolled onto his side and leaned on his elbow, facing Afif, resting his cushion on the rug in front of him and his other hand on the top of the cushion. He posited slowly, “Because if freedom does not make you happy, then nothing will. If one could be free – if one could go anywhere and do anything and be anything one wanted to be in the whole wide world – and still not find happiness in anything, then freedom itself is worthless. All of that freedom and power would be worth nothing. Happiness is the heart’s desire, not freedom.”
“Would you choose life or freedom, then?” Zayn challenged him, after a brief moment of thought. “Which is better: to live in a cage, with everything you could wish to have, or to die free with nothing? If you could choose, which would make you happier?”
Afif thought for a long moment, gazing unseeing at the pages of the book before him.
“What does it mean ‘to die free’?” he asked. “What is freedom? Is it what you said before – to go anywhere, do anything, become anything in the whole wide world? Who can expect that kind of freedom? Who has that much power?
“And what is a cage? Surely any restriction placed upon us is a cage. I am in the cage of being a stable-boy with no parents. You are in a cage that looks like a palace. A pigeon’s cage has feathers and wings. We are all in cages, Zayn.”
There was a pause.
“You are excellent with horses, Afif,” the prince began, “but you are wasted cleaning out stalls.”
Afif smiled humbly.
“Someday, years from now, when I am an advisor to my brother who will be sultan, I will try to make sure that you become the next chief groom,” Zayn informed him. “That way you will be able to advise the royal family with regard to their horses.”
Afif blinked. “Will you really?”
“Of course. You are wise enough and compassionate enough to take care of both horses and people, and you have spent your entire life in stables. You have watched a chief groom for years and are therefore familiar with what is required of him. You are highly qualified for the role. Not every stable-boy might be so capable, but you are.”
Afif considered this. “And will I be able to see you in that role?”
“Of course.” Zayn smiled at him.
Afif smiled back, then got to his feet. “I am honoured, Your Highness.” He began to bow.
“Stop that,” Prince Zayn commanded immediately, pointing a stern finger at his friend.
Afif straightened, his eyes twinkling with repressed laughter.
“You smell of horse,” Zayn insulted him.
“You smell of perfume,” Afif retorted.
Zayn laughed, and, sitting up cross-legged, threw the purple velvet cushion at him. Afif laughed too, and flung the cushion back into Zayn’s lap.
“It is a good smell, though,” Zayn assured him sincerely.
“So is yours,” Afif admitted.
He sat down in front of the prince, cross-legged also on the thick rug.
“So then,” Zayn began slowly, resting his forearms on the cushion in his lap, “if we are all in cages, then the question is whether we choose to be happy within those cages. Will we be happy with what we have? And if we can choose to be happy or not with what we have, then we choose what our own happiness and freedom look like.”
Afif nodded. “And I think the philosophers would say that the wise man chooses to let his happiness look like what he already has.
“For no matter how much he wishes it, a beggar will never become a pigeon.”
Zayn nodded slowly.
As always, Afif was happy to see the lantern in the prince’s window at dusk. On this night, however, as soon as he stepped off the windowsill he knew that something was badly wrong.
The prince had opened the lattice for him as usual, but instead of greeting him, the prince was standing still in the colourful lamplight, and there was something in his face that made Afif’s heart sink.
“Afif, my father told me today,” the prince began, in broken tones, “that I am betrothed to the princess Amina of Hagara. … We are to be married in the coming Spring.”
“Oh,” said Afif, not knowing what else to say.
Zayn buried his face in his hands for a moment. Afif was silent, not understanding.
“I told my father that I do not feel ready to marry.” The prince took a breath. “He told me that it is time I grow up. That what I want and what I feel ready for have no bearing on this situation; that greater things are at stake.” Zayn was close to tears. “He said that in this situation my feelings are less important than what is best for the sultanate.”
Zayn gulped. “I have never met her. She might be lovely and good-natured but … I do not want to marry someone whom I do not know.
“She is ten years older than I am. And … Afif, it is said that she has no love for horses.”
And suddenly he could not bear the thought of his prince being fettered to a woman who shared none of his passions; who held no place in his life or affections.
Zayn drew another breath, about to speak further. The prince held himself straight, but Afif could see him trembling, and the tears standing in his dark eyes.
“We will live here, but … Afif, if I am married I may not be able to see you again.”
Afif stared. “What?”
“Do you think my wife would permit this? Do you think she would permit me to be friends with a stable-boy? Even if she and I were to sleep in separate rooms, it would become more difficult for thee and me to meet. And if my wife were ever to discover us, if she did not approve she could tell our secret.”
Zayn stepped forward and gripped Afif’s shoulders hard. “If my father is trying to make me grow up, my duties will only increase. It will become harder and harder for me to see you.”
Zayn dropped his head forward. “Afif, what am I to do?!”
Afif stepped forward and embraced his friend, feeling helpless; for what can a stable-boy do to stop a royal betrothal?
Zayn sobbed, and Afif understood why, for now he could clearly see that his prince was bound in chains just as surely as if the entire white palace were hung about his neck. And the prince clung to the stable-boy, his one piece of freedom who might soon be taken away from him.
Afif remained with the prince for a long time, longer than usual, as the moon climbed higher and the night grew older. Zayn and Afif sat in silence on the soft, lavishly patterned rug near the bed, leaning their backs against the side of the bed, gazing out of the window at the night sky, each gripping the other’s hand with fingers interlaced, unwilling to let go ever again. Their bodies became numb and stiff, but still neither moved nor spoke.
At last the prince leaned his head on the stable-boy’s shoulder, his forehead touching the side of his friend’s neck, and begged, “Give me some hope, my friend. Do not leave me tonight without hope.”
And the stable-boy did not know what to say.
But he determined that he would say something; he would not leave his friend without hope.
So he said, “For as long as you have Aruna, you have a reason to come to the stables. For as long as you have Aruna, you have a reason to see me.
“A horse is our hope, my friend.”
The prince sniffled and nodded, his head still on the stable-boy’s shoulder.
“Our horses enabled us to meet each other properly for the first time,” Afif added. “Maybe, if God wills it, horses will enable us to keep meeting.”
The prince nodded again, and squeezed Afif’s hand; and Afif could tell that he was grasping this hope because it was hope, not because it promised much.
That night, after he had finally left the prince in the last few hours before dawn, Afif dreamed restless, unhappy dreams.
The following night, the lamp was again in the prince’s window. Usually Zayn would not summon his friend two nights in succession, but Afif understood why Zayn wished for his company again. So, despite his tiredness, he lay awake until the other stable-boys were all asleep, then made his journey swiftly over the roof and the wall, down the chinar tree and through the garden, and climbed the great vine once more.
This time the prince embraced him without saying a word, and they stood there in silence for a long moment.
“I pleaded again with my father today,” Zayn said brokenly. “… He is resolute.”
Afif hugged his prince as hard as he could.
Zayn gripped the back of the stable-boy’s tunic as a drowning man grips a rope, and wept.
And Afif wished with all his might that there was a way he could rescue his prince from this unhappiness.
The night after, the lamp was yet again in the prince’s window. Afif hated himself for dozing off, worn out as he was by lack of sleep, by restless dreams and by misery. He woke as a nightingale started to sing, the sound reaching his sleepy brain through the windows of the stable loft. Furious with himself, he hastened over the roof and to the prince’s vine. He could tell by the stars that it was not very much later than the time when he would usually visit the prince, but he hated to keep the wretched prince waiting and wondering whether Afif could not or would not come.
As the waiting prince embraced him, Afif exhaled an apology. “I’m sorry, my friend; I dozed off, I could not help it, I was so tired and I have been so unhappy thinking of you …”
Zayn hushed him. “I understand. I am thankful that you came at all. … I do not wish to exhaust you with my problems; I simply miss you so much, my friend.”
Zayn then told Afif that he had again pleaded with his father, asking him to delay the marriage by three years or two or even one. But the sultan was adamant: the marriage was already ordained for Spring with the royal family of Hagara, and to delay it would bring into question the sultan’s motives and the prince Zayn’s willingness, which would almost certainly cause offence and suspicion.
“I thought – your father wished for his sons to rule themselves,” the stable-boy faltered.
Zayn nodded, hanging his head. “He says so, but … when it comes to the sultanate …” Zayn shrugged: “he is sultan and therefore he must act as sultan.
“My father has sold me, Afif. I knew that this might happen; all of us brothers knew that our wives would not be ours to choose, and our fates as princes were decided for us the moment we drew breath; but – I did not know that I would meet you! I did not know that marrying would cost me my freedom, and the person I love best in all the world ––
“That night in the starlight – I almost wish it had never happened! For then I tasted freedom, and then I met you, and since then my life has been better than ever, but now it will be taken from me.”
The prince was weeping now. He flung himself on the edge of the bed, kneeling on the rug. “I wish I had died three nights ago. For then I was still a child, and no one was trying to take my freedom and my friend from me, and my father had not made himself my enemy.”
Afif knelt beside the prince, and laid his arm across the sobbing prince’s back and shoulders, leaning against the bed, and laid his head on the coverlet beside the prince’s arm.
Afif had bought his horse by saving as much of his meagre pay as he could, every day for years, until the debt of Shadows’ price had been paid off to the chief groom, who had bought Shadows’ mother at the market, on behalf of the sultan, not knowing that the mare was already in foal. When the piebald foal was born, he was not particularly needed or wanted – of unknown father, he was not of the pureblood stock that the sultan was inclined to breed – and thus Afif was able to buy him. He had trained the colt himself whenever he had a spare hour, and when the horse’s price was finally paid, he had felt freedom. He had a horse of his own. Few stable-boys could ever afford to buy a horse, but few ever made the attempt. Afif now owned something that no one could take away from him.
But how does one buy freedom for someone who already has everything?
Perhaps it could not be bought. Perhaps it had to be stolen.
“Run away, my prince,” Afif murmured, almost without intending to speak.
He was not sure that Zayn had heard him, but he kept murmuring anyway, giving form to dangerous thoughts that should perhaps be left unsaid. “Leave these walls. Leave your fate. Find a place where no one knows you. … Take Aruna and leave here. Ride far away. And be free.”
He heard a sound almost like a hiccup, and Zayn lifted his dark head slowly, turning to look at Afif.
The stable-boy met his gaze in silence.
After a long moment of staring at each other, Zayn said, “But … is there such a place? Where could I go?”
The stable-boy shrugged. “There must be somewhere. The world is so big, according to your books – surely there is some place where no one will know you.”
The prince sniffed, and wiped tears from his cheeks with his fingers.
“And – and what would I do? Would I have to work?”
“I suppose so. But you are clever – you could teach people to read, as you taught me. And teach them about the stars, and chess, and everything you taught me. There must be a place where people need to learn such things – do not even you have tutors yourself?”
“Become a tutor …” Zayn wiped more tears, his dark eyes staring unseeing at the coverlet in the low lamplight as he processed this thought.
Then he said, “But – my duties – I am to help run the palace when my eldest brother becomes sultan ––”
“Zayn, your father has four other sons to help him. Four.” Afif held up four fingers. “I have no doubt that he will miss you, my prince, – I’m sure that everyone will miss you, but … is there any other way you can be free?”
Zayn thought deeply.
After a while he said, “But I would have to leave you … I would never see thee again.”
Afif felt a small smile begin in his eyes. “I’ll come with you.”
“Would you – would you really?” he asked.
Afif nodded seriously. “Yes, my friend. I would come with you. And stay with you, wherever you go.”
Zayn sat back on the rug, facing Afif, his legs folded untidily beneath him.
“But … we would have nothing.” The prince glanced at Afif for confirmation. “We could take hardly anything with us; only what our horses could carry.”
Afif nodded slightly. “That is true.” He paused.
Then he said, “Prince, you have always had everything. Everything in the whole world has always been yours. Compared to you, I have always had nothing. Nothing, but my horse and myself.”
Afif hesitated. “So, my friend, I can teach you. I can teach you how to have nothing, as you have taught me so much.”
Zayn was silent for a while. Afif waited.
“But – I cannot,” the prince said, almost tearful again. “To leave everything – to leave everyone I have ever known and everything I have ever had and everything I have ever been ––”
He laid the back of his head on the embroidered coverlet, and stared at the ceiling.
“To leave my family …”
Afif, the orphan stable-boy, was silent.
“My father would be furious. It would be a terrible insult to the princess and her family. My brothers would be angry too; I would be abandoning all of my duties forever …”
Afif was silent for a moment more. He had said nothing for some time. Then he said,
“I will understand, Zayn. I will understand whatever you do.”
Zayn looked at him. “You will. But they will not.”
“That is true.”
Zayn looked deeply into Afif’s eyes for a long moment, and Afif returned his gaze unwavering.
“And … I think … I would rather be with someone who understands no matter what I do,” Zayn said softly.
He took a deep breath. “We once said that one can choose what one’s own happiness looks like; that we are the ones who decide whether we will be happy within our own cages.
“But my happiness does not look like this, Afif. I care not how foolish it is – I cannot be happy like this. I refuse this cage.”
Afif hesitated. The implications of his own suggestion had been unfurling themselves, one by one, in his mind; as thorns and nettles unfurling before a traveller who thought that he had walked into a meadow of wildflowers; and furthermore he had realised that the prince would be placing his hope in Afif’s guidance: their survival in the world outside the padded luxury of nobles and royals would be largely Afif’s responsibility.
“You are going to try to dissuade me,” Zayn guessed, reading his friend’s face.
“I do not want you to suffer, prince.”
“I will suffer if I stay. And there is no time to compare the two types of suffering to find which is more palatable: I cannot run away once I am married; that would be outright disobedience to the sultan and a gross insult to Hagara. I must jump, now, and hope I land well, or remain and watch my future unfold as it has been arranged for me.”
Still Afif hesitated.
“My friend, do not give me hope of salvation if you are then going to pull your hand away,” Zayn murmured reproachfully.
Afif dropped his head forward, chastened. “I am afraid that I will fail you,” he confessed agitatedly.
Zayn shuffled closer on the rug and leaned his curly black forehead against Afif’s.
“If I am to be condemned to an unhappy fate,” he said quietly, after a moment, “I would rather it be at the hand of one who truly seeks only goodness and happiness for me; rather than at the hands of those who say they love me but ultimately sell me for purposes that are not mine.”
Afif swallowed. His eyes were prickling.
“Then will you trust me, even if I fail you?” he asked, lifting his head from the prince’s.
The prince thought.
Then he reached for Afif’s hand, and gripped it. “Yes. I will trust you, even if you fail me; because I know that you love me for the person I am and not for what I can do for you.”
“H-How do you know?” Afif asked. “How do you know that I will not kill you and take your horse and your money and flee?”
Zayn smiled. “Because if you wanted to do that, you could have done so already.
“In all the years that I have known you, Afif, you have never asked me for anything. You had the friendship of a sultan’s son, yet you never asked for any favours or gifts or honours. On the night of starlight, in the desert, you could have snatched my dagger and killed me and ridden away with Aruna, and it would have been blamed on bandits. Yet it never even occurred to you to do so.”
Afif blinked, surprised. How had the prince known that such a thought had never entered his head? “How do I know?” the prince supplied. “Because I know thee, Afif. I know thee like I know myself.”
He held Afif’s gaze. “And even if,” the prince murmured, so softly, “I am wrong, I would rather die believing that you loved me thus, than stay here out of fear and know, deep in my heart, that I had lost something precious and irreplaceable because I was too afraid to believe in it.”
Afif could do nothing but embrace his prince; and the prince gave a slight, sad, joyful laugh, and the stable-boy’s tears spilled.
After a long moment, the stable-boy spoke through his tears.
“My prince, on the night we rode together, you asked me if I had ever met a soul that shone so beautifully as one of the stars above us,” Afif said slowly. “I answered that I had never met such a soul in a person. … But on that night, I did.”
The prince whispered, “So did I.”
And so they made their plan: on the next dark night, Afif would bring their saddlebags from the stables to the prince’s bedchamber, and there they would pack the saddlebags with supplies and necessary equipage. They would leave the palace the same way that Afif always did, carrying the saddlebags back to the stables. They would collect their horses, then leave via the horse fields, past the great guard dogs at the field gates. The dogs knew both Afif and Zayn and would not bark: their job was to stop strangers coming to the stables from the fields, not to stop those whom they recognised going to the fields from the stables.
In the intervening days, the prince feigned submission to his father’s will, and secretly prepared for his escape, deciding which possessions he would most need to take, and smuggling provisions up to his chamber.
Prince Zayn prepared a letter to his family, explaining his absconding and begging that no effort be made to find him. As he explained to Afif, if no message were left then it may well be assumed that the prince had been abducted, and a search would be conducted. “This way, they will still search for me,” Zayn said, “but they will not worry quite so much, and they may relinquish the search sooner.”
He hesitated, then added, “Afif, if they find us … I pray that they will not, but if they find us, I will tell them that it was my idea, and that I forced your help and your secrecy.”
Afif nodded reluctantly, his face sober. He and Zayn both knew that a runaway prince would be punished, but a stable-boy who abducted a prince would be summarily executed.
“You do not have to do this,” Prince Zayn said quietly. “I will understand if …” Uncharacteristically, he did not finish his sentence.
Afif shook his head. “It was my idea. I should not voice my words if I do not wish to take responsibility for them.
“Besides, they will not find us. We will disappear.” He smiled up at his prince, who smiled back.
More than once, Prince Zayn looked around at his lavish chamber with all its beautiful things, and sighed in reluctance to leave them. Afif did not blame him.
As he cared for the horses at the stables, Afif silently said ‘farewell’ to each of them. Some of them he had known for his whole life. Before he met Zayn, horses had been his family, his teachers, and his dearest friends. He would miss them greatly.
Too soon, the night which the prince had calculated would be dark enough for their escape arrived. On that night, Afif waited with rapid heartbeat for the stables to fall asleep. Then, gathering up in a blanket his few possessions, he stole down from the loft and stuffed his things into his saddlebags.
For the last time, Afif made the familiar journey over the tiled roof, over the wall, down the chinar tree, across the sweet-scented garden, and up the faithful vine; this time awkwardly bearing two sets of saddlebags. So that the vine would not have to bear the weight of Afif plus his burdens, Zayn tossed down a rope and drew the saddlebags up thus.
By the warm, rainbow light of the multicoloured lantern – the same lantern that had watched their meetings for years – the prince and the stable-boy carefully filled the saddlebags and prepared their luggage. The prince packed his plainest clothes, which were still far more luxurious than any commoner’s, but this could not be helped. He wore his dagger, and gave to Afif another that had been a birthday gift to the prince from a wealthy noble, complete with a beautifully tooled leather belt.
Zayn lingered reluctantly near his shelf of precious books. “I wish we could take them,” he told Afif longingly.
Afif pulled his few clothes aside in one of the saddlebags to reveal the gap that he had deliberately left. “We have room for one scroll, dear friend,” he told Zayn.
Zayn glanced at him in delight before turning back to the bookshelf with a frown of pain. “But which shall I choose?” he moaned.
With difficulty, Zayn made his selection, and he and the stable-boy quickly finished packing the saddlebags with their carefully pre-selected accoutrements. Afif had brought from the stables a few tools he thought they might need, and Zayn had chosen some of his less distinctive jewels which could be sold if need be. They made bundles of clothing and blankets to be strapped onto their saddles and worn on their backs. They packed a small lantern, but did not carry one.
At last, when all was ready, the prince Zayn and the stable-boy Afif turned toward the window, and Afif slid back the lattice. For the last time, Prince Zayn snuffed out the multicoloured lantern.
They stepped to the window and looked out. There was no moon; the stars were quiet, giving just enough light for Afif and Zayn to see the shapes of the fountain and the various shrubs in the garden below, the leafy head of the chinar tree rising past the stone wall, and the long, dark bulk of the stable building beyond. The shadows were thick and plentiful, perfect for hiding a runaway stable-boy and his maverick prince.
Below them, the great vine waited darkly on the palace’s white wall, the breeze making its leaves whisper faintly. Are you ready? Come away … come away … Climb to freedom, as you always have used me.
Afif took a deep breath, as his heart sped with nerves, and glanced at his friend.
The prince had frozen, staring out of the window at the thick, green vine.
“Afif … I am afraid.”
“You have climbed this vine before,” Afif reminded him. “We have practised.”
Zayn shook his head, and Afif realised that it was not falling from the vine that the prince feared.
Afif swallowed. “The son of a sultan, afraid?” he offered, almost managing a smile.
“But that is just it,” Zayn exclaimed, and Afif heard the fear thrumming in his voice. “I am leaving that behind. When I leave here, I will no longer be the son of a sultan. I will not be a prince. I will be … nobody.”
Zayn looked apprehensively at Afif. “I have only ever been a prince. I do not know how to be – someone who is not a prince. When I leave here, I will be nothing.”
With his heart pounding, and tears starting in his eyes, Afif grasped Zayn’s hand. “And I have only ever been a stable-boy. I don’t know how not to be a stable-boy. I don’t know what I will become when I am not a stable-boy in the sultan’s palace anymore.
“But, my friend Zayn, if we stay here, a prince and a stable-boy is all we will ever be.” He gulped. “So if we want to be anything other than what we are, we have to leave this place. And we have to do it now.”
Afif swallowed again, almost panting with nerves, and looked out of the window. “There is one thing we will still be after we leave here, Zayn,” he remembered. He looked at his soft-spoken prince. “We will still be friends.” He squeezed the prince’s hand. “Let us start with that.”
Zayn nodded, holding Afif’s gaze for a moment.
Then he took a deep breath and looked again at the vine.
“Come, my prince,” Afif breathed, gripping the prince’s hand. “Let’s run away.”
Zayn shot him a glance of joyful daring, dark eyes flashing. “I shall follow you.”
So Afif climbed down the vine, for the last time. Zayn lowered the saddlebags and bundles to him on a rope; then he too climbed down the vine, whilst below him Afif coiled the rope and tied it to a saddlebag. Wordlessly, Afif led the way, through the garden and up the chinar tree, all for the last time. Zayn followed Afif’s every move, thinking of nothing except copying all of Afif’s actions as silently as possible. Afif had described the route and every necessary precaution of it in detail to his friend, so that Zayn would know what to expect at every moment; and the prince had often studied, as he walked alone in his walled garden, the way that Afif must take and the handholds he must use, noting the slight flattening in the soft grass where Afif landed after dropping from the chinar tree.
In later years, Afif and Zayn would look back on that night and marvel that they had not been caught.
Silently, in darkness and in soft-booted feet, they retrieved their tack, saddled their horses and strapped on the saddlebags, praying with every breath that almighty God would allow them a silent and successful escape. Silently, they led Aruna and Shadows from their stalls. The horses said nothing, as though realising that secrecy was important. In the courtyard, Afif and Zayn mounted, and, as they walked their mounts quietly but swiftly toward the gates that led to the horse fields, Afif glanced back, just once, at the place that had been his home for as long as he could remember.
He, like the prince, was abandoning everything he had ever known. From now on, his world would consist of Shadows, Aruna, and Zayn.
It was difficult to imagine. Would he forget this place? Would he forget the other stable servants’ names? Would …
It didn’t matter. What mattered was freedom. Especially, freedom for the prince. Afif turned his head from the stables behind and looked ahead, toward the darkened fields.
With a few quiet words to the great guard dogs in their kennels, Afif leaned down to grasp the gate’s iron latch, and he and his well-trained Shadows opened the gate together, as they had done a thousand times. The dogs’ dark eyes looked at Afif and Zayn with some puzzlement, but they were silent, only thumping their tails a few times in greeting. Zayn rode through the gate, and Shadows and Afif closed it expertly behind themselves.
As the latch clicked closed, Afif felt his heart skip. It was as though he had closed a door: a door that led into the life that had been his hitherto. Now he was in a field, and beyond the fields lay the city, and beyond the city lay … anywhere.
Beyond the city lay freedom.
Freedom and secrecy like that of the night of starlight.
Afif turned his horse away from the gate. Zayn and Aruna were waiting a few paces ahead. The prince and the stable-boy walked their mounts away calmly for a few minutes, to convince the guard dogs that all was well and there was no need for excitement. Then they urged their horses to a trot, then a canter, leaving the stable buildings and the palace behind as quickly as they could. Minutes passed, with only the sound of cantering hooves on grass to disturb the quiet of the night.
As they reached the edge of the fields, the two riders drew rein, side by side. Buildings loomed darkly before them: the city that surrounded the palace and its fields.
Panting slightly, Zayn asked quietly, “Where shall we go, Afif? Where shall we go once we are beyond the city?”
The prince’s voice resonated with excitement and trepidation. Afif breathed deeply. He felt alive and exhilarated, as he had on the night of starlight, though this time he felt frightened as well.
“Anywhere. We can go anywhere.”
Afif felt powerful. He would take care of the prince, who, though he knew much of the world, had never had to fend for himself before. Afif would take care of himself, and the prince, and both of their horses. It would, no doubt, take all of his resources; all the strength and cleverness and energy and courage he possessed.
But he would do it.
And by the time dawn arrived, he and the prince and Shadows and Aruna would be halfway to anywhere; to a place where they could each become whatever they wanted to be.
Afif held out his hand to the prince, who reached out and grasped it, bridging the space between their horses. “Trust me, Zayn. We can do this. I’ll take you anywhere.”
G. Wulfing, 2014.
Inspired by Evanescence’s song ‘Anywhere’.
About G. Wulfing
G. Wulfing, author of kidult fantasy and other bits of magic, is a freak. They have been obsessed with reading since they learned how to do it, and obsessed with writing since they discovered the fantasy genre a few years later. G. Wulfing has no gender, and varies between twelve and one hundred years of age on the inside, and somewhere in between that on the outside. G. Wulfing lives amidst the beautiful scenery of New Zealand, prefers animals to people, and is in a dedicated relationship with theirself and hot chocolate.
On a blazing starlit night in the desert, the stable-boy Afif cannot sleep. Neither can the sultan’s youngest son, gentle and cultured Prince Zayn. On this unearthly, magical night, the prince and the stable-boy meet properly for the first time, as they ride their treasured horses through the dunes; but if they ever wish to converse again it must be in secret, for the sultan deems it inappropriate for a prince to be friends with a stable-boy. An old-fashioned short story in the tradition of Oscar Wilde’s fairytales, set in the palace and stables of a fantasy Middle-Eastern realm.