by Kathy Keegan
(No prizes will be handed out for guessing where this plot was pilfered from...)
Fatigue had begun to drag at his muscles, but Rachid did not dare stop. The men were only a stone's throw behind him now, and catching him fast. Every one of them was bigger and stronger than he was himself. That came as no surprise; he had grown accustomed to working alongside much bigger men. He had been the first mate of the Griffin for four years and in that time Captain Sinbad had come to trust Rachid as his right hand. Size was not everything...Except when it came to a fight for life itself.
The had seen him in the market square. He had done nothing to incur the wrath of the guard, but the soldiers had pointed him out as soon as they saw him, and it was either flee or surrender to arrest. So Rachid ran. The ship lay at anchor in a bay on the west side of the island, and there was no hope of reaching it. He had come ashore for the first time in weeks, splitting up from his crewmates to stop off at the market before heading for their planned rendezvous -- the fabled 'fleshpots of Zerindah'. After six months at sea, Rachid wanted the kind of finery and frippery that would mark him out for a man of substance; silks, silver and jade. Sinbad had divided the spoils of the voyage evenly, there was money to burn, and the Griffin's first mate had looked forward to parting pleasurably with a goodly portion of his share.
Now there would be none of that. He had no idea what he had done to alert the Zerindah city guard to his presence, but the men were out for his blood. He had his sword and dagger, but had not brought his bow into the city, and in any case, to loose an arrow against the city guard would be to sign his death warrant.
The city perched on th lip of a cliff. Instinct led him away from the tangled streets and piers and he found himself on a narrow, steep path that fed down to the beach. There was no way back, and as he took the path, Rachid knew it was probably a mistake. With the cliff behind and the sea before, there would be no escape, unless he could make it over the boulders that had tumbled down off the crumbling rock face to block the beach.
Moonlight streamed across the water. The tide was on the turn. On the other side of the island they would be changing the watch, and he wished deperately that he had looked to his duty and stayed aboard. But even Sinbad had gone ashore, and only a running crew had been left on the Griffin.
"Stranger, will you stop, for the love of Allah?"
The voice was breathless and too close behind for comfort. Rachid flung a glance over his shoulder to see that three of the men who had taken up the chase in the market were still behind him. One wore the black cloak of a guard captain, the others were clad in leather; the moonlight glittered on their naked swords. They wanted him to stop? Stop -- and be arrested for nothing, and spend the rest of his life mouldering in the dungeons under the castle of Prince Kabir? These islands were not know for their hospitality.
The boulders closed the beach off before him, and Rachid's eyes strained in the meagre light, trying to find a way over or through them. It was as he suspected... taking the trail down to the beach had been a blunder, and he was about to pay the price for his mistake.
He spun, drawing his sword and trying to catch his breath. The guardsmen were panting, he saw with satisfaction. They were too big and heavy for running races, and he had exhausted all but their captain. The big man in the black cloak took a step closer and spoke again. "Stranger, why did you run?"
"Why?" Rachid demanded breathlessly. "When six guardsmen approach me with drawn swords, what shall I do -- fight? You would have my life for that!"
"We wanted only to speak with you." The guard captain had almost regained his breath now. He held up his hands in a show of peace, making an exaggerated display of sliding his sword away. "See? We mean you no harm."
Rachid's brow creased in a frown. "Then why did you accost me in the market? I was purchasing silks, which is hardly against the law of these islands."
"I have told you," the captain repeated, "we wanted to speak with you... I can forgive you for taking to your heels, however... There are no few stories of the ills done strangers here. Oddly, it is this which concerns us -- and why we must speak with you."
"Me?" Rachid echoed. "I am a mariner, just a sailor. The laws of your islands have little to do with me -- unless I have broken them, which I have not."
The moonlight caught the captain's teeth as he smiled. "You have nothing to fear, mariner. What is your name?"
"I am the first mate of the Griffin, Sinbad's ship. My name is Rachid. I am from Algiers."
The captain bowed in greeting. "My name is Hassan, I am the commander of the guard. You do not trust me, I see."
"Should I?" Rachid demanded, not making a move to put away his sword.
Hassan smiled again. "You should, but you must learn that you can. Here, let us talk in private." He turned to the two men who were panting and wheezing behind him. "Return to the marketplace and be about your duties. I will look to the business now." They made obeisance and left at once, and Hassan gave Rachid a shrug. There. We are alone, you are no longer outnumbered. You can relax."
"Can I?" Rachid let the tip of his sword go down but did not sheath the blade. "I do not trust you, Captain -- but you have my ears. What is it you want of me?"
"A month or two of your time, all being well," Hassan said cryptically. "You will be well paid, of course."
"Not a job of work," Hassan said carefully, seating himself on a flat boulder. "And in any event, things may not go our way... But when I saw you in the market -- you may well be the answer to a problem that has been plaguing us for months."
For a moment Rachid said nothing, trying to make sense of Hassan's words. He could hear honesty in the captain's voice and did not doubt that there was much he could learn if he was prepared to listen. He frowned at the other man, stepping closer, better to see his face. Blued by the moonlight, it was very pale, the skin beneath the burnous milky white. So he was one of the nobility who lived his life away from the sun and covered his face when in public. It was a strong face, finely moulded, with a small nose, wide mouth, and deep, direct eyes beneath brows that were crooked and intriguing. Against his will, Rachid gave the face his approval. He liked the voice that accompanied it too -- soft, well modulated, lightly accented with the burr of these islands, not unlike Sinbad's own voice, and not so thickly accented as his own. No matter where he went, Rachid's voice and accent betrayed his origins -- the harbours of Algiers.
"A problem?" He prompted, perching on the boulder beside the captain. "And I -- I -- am the solution to it? I am a mariner, a passing good navigator, a master seaman. Your problem is a maritime one?"
Unexpectedly, Hassan laughed. "Far from it, but the answer may be maritime! I should like to drown the source of the problem, Rachid, and where better to do that, than in the sea?"
Rachid found a smile at last. The night wind, cool off the water, tossed at his long hair. "You had better explain. Am I free to go, incidentally?" His voice darkened. "Or a prisoner?"
"You are a free man," Hassan said mildly. "But I trust that you will stay, offer us your help... If it is as feasible as I hope." He turned from the ocean to look at the stranger. "When I saw you in the market, I could not believe my eyes. Your stature, your colouring, your hair, and even you face... Your cheek was what drew my attention to you at once." He paused, seeing the mariner's deepening frown. "May I ask what injury marred your face?"
"I fell from the rigging as a lad," Rachid told him, his tone indifferent. It was a long time in the past. "I was an apprentice navigator and was on watch atop the mast. A wind came up unexpectedly and I had not secured my lines correctly. I paid the price for my negligence." He grinned, a lopsided, wry expression. "I nearly died, and learned the lesson well. Why is that of any concern to you?"
Hassan did not speak for a time, gathering his thoughts as he rubbed his palms together. "Two months ago, the old Sultan, Ibn Jemail, died. You may have heard of this."
"In the port of Charak," Rachid nodded. "But he has a son, the succession is in no doubt."
"Prince Kabir," Hassan whispered. "Oh yes, the sultan left a son behind him... But there are few who would spare Prince Kabir much love in these parts. For years, while Ibn Jemail grew frail and infirm with age, Kabir has governed these lands. You yourself took to your heels and fled as soon as you saw the uniform of the city guard -- and why? Because you feared that you would be arrested and incarcerated for no reason, left to rot, rat-meat in the dungeons beneath the castle."
"Aye," Rachid agreed. "It was no slur on your prince, you understand, but I have a healthy regard for my freedom."
Hassan stirred. "And wisely so. No few travellers have come to grief here; our reputation is blackened by the cruelties Prince Kabir undertakes. And that, my friend, is the problem."
"Prince Kabir?" Rachid blinked. "But he is the rightful heir to the sultanate, what is there to be done of it?"
"Ah." Hassan tapped his nose. "What indeed? The coronation takes place in a month's time, after Ibn Jemail has been properly mourned. All of us are dreading the day when Kabir will have a free rein to do as he pleases... No one will be safe, not the seamen, like yourself, who are the life's blood of our trade, and not the people who live here under the wight of Kabir's oppression... We would be rid of Kabir, once and for all."
"And put whom in his place?" Rachid asked softly. "There must be a successor."
"And there is," Hassan nodded. "Kabir has a cousin, a lad much younger than us, barely more than child. But he is a clever boy with a kind heart, educated in Algiers, which is your home port. If he were to be the sultan of Zerindah, there would be peace and contentment for all." The captain shrugged. "That has been our dream -- and our nightmare."
Rachid snorted in derision. "You had the answer minutes ago, Captain -- drown him. Is that what you want me to do for you?"
There was a gust of laughter from Hassan, and he thumped the smaller man's shoulder. "Allah bless you for your innocence! Would that we could do just that! But Kabir is surrounded by his wives and his guards; we cannot get near him, and if he was gone for so much as an hour the alarm would be raised. What we need is a decoy."
"I can see your reasoning," Rachid admitted, "but not where it is taking you. What has this to do with me, if I am not to be the assassin? If you wish me to hill him for you--"
"I do not," Hassan said quickly. "That has all been taken care of, long since. No, Rachid; what we want from you is more subtle, more difficult, and more dangerous." He stirred, taking the mariner by the shoulders and turning him to the moonlight. "Here, let me look at you more closely. The light is good enough."
Rachid turned to the light as he was asked and kept his silence, but realisation had begun to dawn on him and a thread of something midway between humour and fear wound through his innards. Decoy? "In the market," he said quietly, "my face and body drew your attention?"
"Aye. I saw your profile, the broken cheek, the hair and nose, and after that the rest was too easy," Hassan said absently. "When Kabir was nine years old he fell from a horse in the street; he almost died, and his cheek never healed properly. On him it is a cruel feature but on you..." He said no more, biting off the words, for they were not fitting.
To be sure, this mariner was the Prince's twin, feature for feature, but the acutal similarities between the two men ended there. Kabir was cold, cruel, egocentric, his eyes glittering with a feral quality, his mouth drawn tight in anger. This man wore the same features, and on him they were beautiful, broken cheek and all. The mouth was relaxed, soft, the eyes warm and laughing, and Hassan found himself spellbound by what he saw, unable to take his eyes or his fingers from Rachid's face.
"The likeness is remarkable," he said at last, knowing that the mariner was growing puzzled by his long silence. "There is but one differnce... The moustache must go."
"The moustache?" Rachid said indignantly. "I grew it because without it they say I look too much like a girl!"
Hassan laughed softly. "Is that what they say? They are playing with you -- you are a man, there is no doubt of that! Also, when you speak, you must do so with the accent of these islands. Can you do that?"
"I have spent years listening to Sinbad," Rachid said, "and I would simply copy him. But slow down, Captain --"
"My name is Hassan. If we will be working together I would be pleased if you would use it."
"Hassan," Rachid echoed with a smile. "But slow down. I have not yet agreed to assist you; there will be great dangers."
"Greater dangers than you have faced time and again as one of Sinbad's crew?" Hassan scoffed. "I heard of your voyage to the land of Limuria -- everyone has heard of that. You fought the savage tribes and creatures out of nightmare. After that, what could a few courtly games of intrigue have to deter you?" He saw the pride settle on Rachid's remarkable face and knew he had hit the target unerringly. "And you will be well paid, Rachid. Gold -- enough to buy your own ship, if you will it."
"My own ship?" Rachid could not keep the fascination out of his voice. "As happy as I have been aboard the Griffin, how often have I wished for my own ship?"
"Help us, then," Hassan entreated quietly. "And if all goes well, you shall be the master of your own vessel."
"And if all goes badly," Rachid snorted, "I shall be dead."
"Allah will not desert us," Hassan smiled. "Why else would he send your ship to Zerindah at this of all times?"
"Why else indeed?" Rachid smiled.
The smile warmed Hassan, reaching to nerves he had not known he possessed, initiating a sweet pain in his insides. Kabir smiled like a snake, deadly and like ice. But on this one... "Help us."
Rachid was silent for a long moment, going over the absurd plan in his mind, his eyes on the sea. "For gold, for the sake of a sultanate that is suffering under oppression," he said, "aye, I will help you. I shall miss my ship, you know. The Griffin sails in a fortnight's time, and you will want me here at least until the coronation."
"Since it is you who will be crowned," Hassan agreed, "so we shall."
"Crowned?" Rachid repaeated. "I thought you wanted a decoy, someone to take attention away from Kabir, while you drown him."
"Oh, if life were that simple," Hassan said with a sigh. "But no... What we must have is a foolproof plan, without the danger of recrimination or allegation. If you agree to help us, you will come to my home; there, I will teach you to be Kabir, and then, on the night of the celebrations before the coronation, you will take his place. Be Kabir. On your head will rest the crown of Zerindah, for -- oh, another month should suffice. After that you will step down, abdicate in favour of your young cousin, on the grounds of ill health. You will go away to take the cures in Greece, and never return."
The plan left Rachid speechless. "You... think I can do it?"
Hassan shrugged. "I don't know. I won't know until I have seen you in daylight, and watched you act the part of Kabir, heard you speak with the accent of the islands."
"The accent is easy," Rachid scoffed, and dropped into Sinbad's way of speaking without thinking about it. "But I have never seen the Prince to know how he walks, sits --"
"I shall be your teacher," Hassan assured him. "I grew up with Kabir, learned to ride and fight and shoot with him-- I know him as well as any man can. And I despise him."
"And I wear his face," Rachid said ruefully. "I hope you will not despise me!"
"You?" Hassan shook his head. "There is all the difference in the world between you. Kabir is like ice, and you like a warm hearth; Kabir is brittle, like iron, and you supple and yielding like willow wood. He is granite to your velvet, Rachid; mistaking you for him would be impossible."
"So long as you do not start making that mistake," Rachid smiled. "I will have to send a message to my captain, of course."
Hassan stood up. "Leave that to me. I will send a courier with a message at first light, as soon as we have seen that you will be able to play this part. Sinbad is a man whose honour cannot be impeached. I know that he will keep our trust -- and also that he would come looking for you if you did not return to your ship when expected. His first mate would be difficult to replace, I think."
Rachid followed the captain to his feet, sheathing his sword at last. "I still think it would be easier for you to simply put a knife between Kabir's ribs. I would be happy to assist you."
"And you would die," Hassan said bleakly. "And die nastily; castrated and strangled. No, murder is not the answer -- it was the first plan we formulated, and it was promptly dismissed." He took a step toward the trail that would lead back up the cliff, noticing that Rachid had not moved. "Come; I have horses at the marketplace; my home is a short ride in the east."
There was nothing about the captain of the guard that was threatening, and Rachid found that trust came all too easily. Hassan was less like a stranger than a comrade-in- arms already -- which was absurd. Not an hour before, the mariner had been a fugitive, living in fear of the dungeons. Now, he was falling into step beside the bigger man, walking with him back up to the clifftop and strolling toward the town. Hassan was too easy to like, too easy to trust, and he recognised how dangerous that could be.
Hassan seemed to realise that and said no more, lest the mariner think he was being coerced against his wishes. He led the way to a stone-built guard house where the horses were tied, and handed the reins of a dappled young gelding to the mariner.
"Can you ride?"
"I can hold to a saddle," Rachid grinned, "though I have had little sport with horses... You don't find too many of them on a ship."
The captain swung up onto a chestnut gelding decked out in scarlet and gold harness, and turned out of the marketplace by a street so narrow that the horses could only pass single file. Soon they were out of the town again and holding to a trail that led between orange and cedar groves. Rachid was conscious of many misgivings, and he took careful notice of the defences of the place as Hassan turned in through a gateway and clattered into a courtyard where fountains played and the music of a lute was in the air.
"My home," he said proudly. Indicating the white walled, flat roofed building at the extremity of the courtyard.
Rachid could recognise the mark of great wealth, and he was impressed. He had known Hassan to be a noble by the way he spoke, but this house belonged to a very rich man. "Allah smiles on the faithful," he observed drily.
Hassan chuckled. "I am the eldest son of the household... What you see is merely in my keeping for so long as I am alive; before me it was my father's and after I am gone it will belong to my son."
"The boy must be proud," Rachid said, admiring the house and walled gardens.
"No, since he is not yet born," Hassan shrugged. "I have not taken any wives yet... One day I shall, but there has not been time to think of my personal life. I am young as yet, and in no hurray. Come, this way. Let me see you in the light."
Oil lamps burned brightly, dazzling them after the pale blue of the moonlight, and Hassan threw off his cloak, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Servants came scurrying with wine and bowls of dried fruits and nuts, but he waved them away, leading Rachid into his private apartments. "Come, come, stand here, in the best of the light..." He turned up the lamps and stood back to look at the man he had found by accident.
Prince Kabir was a humourless man with eyes like chips of ice; his features were chiselled as if from marble, perfect but for the broken cheekbone. Technically, Rachid should have been no more than the mirror image of all that icy fury, but now Hassan was seeing the differences, as well as the similarities, and his breath caught in his throat. The man's eyes were as green as the ocean, he saw, the colour of the kelp, and they were sparkling with laughter as Rachid somehow saw the absurdity of the situation and could not contain his mirth. White teeth caught the lamplight, sun- browned skin glowed with health, and the icy features seemed suddenly to come to life... It was a face Hassan had spent most of his life looking at and loathing. Now, he looked at the too-familiar face, lit with laughter, and could not help acknowledging a terrible fascination for it.
"Will I do?" Rachid laughed. Hassan was gaping at him, as if doing impressions of a fish out of water. "Or is that the look of horror, and I am as much like Kabir, in the light, as you are yourself?"
Hassan shook his head. "On the contrary... You will do very nicely," he said drily. "In fact, you are so much like Kabir that not even his father could not tell you apart -- save that yours is the face of laughter and kindness, and his only cruelty and rage. You're beautiful, he thought silently, so beautiful they will sing songs of you for a decade... Beautiful as Kabir never was.
"Then you will be sending a courier to Sinbad at dawn," Rachid concluded. "I shall write the message myself -- he knows my hand."
"You can read and write?" Hassan was surprised.
"And make charts," Rachid nodded. "I learned when my first Captain befriended me... Many good memories I have from that time. The ship was my home and the captain more my friend than my employer."
The green eyes had misted as he spoke, and Hassan frowned. "Regret? Sadness? You were a boy, and the captain taught you -- this was a kindness, something to treasure in memory."
"Aye, I do treasure it," Rachid nodded, returning to the present with a wistful expression. "Parchment, Hassan. Let me write Sinbad a message he will know comes from my own hand."
"Then, a razor," Hassan grinned, "and we will see what you look like when your face has been denuded of that moustache!"
Shaving the moustache away was Rachid's worst fear, and he did it with a groan. He had let it grow in the first place when he had been told once too often that he looked pretty enough to drive a seaman to distraction, four weeks out from port. There had been times when Rachid had learned the truth of that, and although he did not mind the attentions of his friends -- and indeed the captain -- the moustache had become a symbol of his masculinity, lest he be mistaken for a girl in every port! Sinbad had laughed when he grew it, but had found that the kisses were still as sweet, and Rachid parted from the lush growth reluctantly...
He chuckled as he saw his reflection in the silver mirror held for him by the attentive Hassan. Sinbad would not laugh if he could see him now, he guessed; the captain was a man for women most of the time, but his heart was warm and his tastes easy... Smooth and soft and unaccountably young-looking without the moustache, Rachid would find himself treasured, cherished, and bedded. A coil of heat wound through his groin at the thought and his eyes grew dark as he looked up at Hassan --
And blinked in surprise. How often had he seen that look on the faces of his friends, well out at sea, long into a voyage? Hungry. Guarded but ravenous -- ostensibly matey but undeniably aroused. Aboard Sinbad's ship there was no hardship; when one wanted loving, one asked, and if the answer was no, one accepted that and let the matter rest. Rachid had often been asked, as had young Haroun, in the years he had sailed aboard the Griffin; the merchant's son often said 'yes', but Rachid's first thought was for the captain, and since Sinbad's kisses were by far the most practised and sweet to be found on the Griffin, the first mate seldom accepted invitations from others.
Hassan wore the same ravenous look, unaware that it was plain on his face, and Rachid swallowed. He was alone here, in the man's house, far from help; there were guards and servants, and Hassan was much bigger and stronger than he himself; the captain's physical stature did not frighten one who had fought and played with Sinbad, for even Hassan would look small beside the skipper of the Griffin. But if it came to a fight... Rachid averted his eyes. Rape was not one of his favorite pastimes, and as yet he had managed to avoid that in his life -- more by good luck than good management, he was sure. Sinbad would have put rapists to the sword, so his ship was always safe, no matter how young the crew. Hassan's face literally glowed with wanting, and Rashid made himself look back at it.
Hassan was noble born -- it showed in his face. There was the mark of much pain in his eyes, too, so, no matter how rich his family, he had suffered. Rachid wondered how, and where. In the service of Sheik Ibn Jemail, he thought, warring for the crown. The blue eyes were beautiful, deep and rimmed with long, black lashes -- hungry now, but laughingly so, as if Hassan mocked himself for the passion that was building steadily inside him. That look alone was enough to stir Rachid, but he tightened the reins on his own feelings. He did not know this man well enough yet to risk encouraging him -- two words in the wrong direction and Sinbad's first mate could be regretting his mistakes.
But Hassan was beautiful; no amount of caution on Rachid's part could blind him to that. "Parchment," he said huskily. "I must write a message for my captain."
"Hm?" Hassan dragged himself away from the man who sat in the lamplight, his face so soft and smooth within the cap of red-brown hair, that it was -- yes, he could have been a woman. A beautiful woman who could intoxicate a man, make him drunk with desire and with love.
It was an act of will for the captain of the guard to go in search of writing materials, and then he stood aside, watching the mariner's head bow over the parchement as he wrote a brief message... That he was in no danger and staying with a friend, that he was employed and might miss the Griffin as she sailed, and that, if that were the case, if Sinbad left their heading with the harbour master, he would take another ship and catch up.
Finished, the message was rolled and thonged with a strip of rawhide, and Rachid turned to pass it into Hassan's waiting hand. The captain's blue eyes smouldered on him, and he caught his breath. "Hassan?" His voice was a mere whisper.
"Mmm?" Hassan rumbled, a purr in his chest, his eyes catching and holding the green ones.
"The message, Hassan." Rachid was grateful for the breeze from the open windows, for the room seemed stiflingly hot. "I have written only such as will let Sinbad know it is a proper message and not some trick... Your courier can tell him whatever fraction of your business you see fit -- or not. This I leave to you."
"Loyal," Hassan observed, taking the rolled parchment. "Do you give your loyalty easily every time?"
"No, Hassan, but when it has been won it is given freely." Rachid allowed his tone to become husky and deep, rich with meaning.
The blue eyes crinkled as the other man smiled. "Then I shall win it," he offered. "For I want that loyalty." Need it, he told himself. Need it as I need air to breath -- for the love of Allah, what is happening to me?
It felt as if he was falling... The pit was a mile deep and there could be no escape. At the bottom of it was promise, dark delight, dreams beyond imagination, green eyes and soft brown skin, smiles and laughter, husky words panted after loving -- He shook himself hard. It was absurd, he barely knew the man! And yet he had lived his life looking at, and hating, that face --
Hating it? On Kabir he hated it with a passion. On Rachid...
On Rachid it was the face of love. Painful in its intensity, emotion that was essentially alien to him washed over and through Hassan, swamping him and leaving him bewildered.
"It's late," he said at last, needing to run, to escape. "I will send you food, clothes, everything you will need. Get some sleep tonight -- we will begin the work on the morrow.
With that he fled, leaving Rachid staring at the closed door. He sat in an oppulent room; the drapes were silken, the bed a delight of feathers and gauze, the floor tiled and cool, the air smelling sweetly of incense. But the room was empty and he sighed. His shipmates would be carousing and exhausted -- which was what he had come ashore himself for. Instead, he slept on silk and ate like a prince... and spent the night alone.
It was funny, he thought, and chuckled as he undressed, changing into a robe of peacock blue as he waited for the servants to bring his food. But the fact that Hassan had fled was enough to reassure him... Hassan meant him no harm. Oh yes, there was a starved wanting in the captain's face, but it was the same kind of gentle lust he had come to cherish in Sinbad; there would be soft invitations to bed, and gifts heaped upon him, none of them necessary, because love was its own reward. He ate a little of the expensive food, drank coffee and lay down to sleep. His body was still unfulfilled and frustrated after the long sea voyage -- he wanted fresh air, music, dancing, women's voices singing to him, soft hands caressing him... There would be none of that, he knew... But the prospect of what was possible made up for the disappointments of the night.
He slept poorly but was comfortable, and a boy came to wake him with breakfast when the sun was just above the horizon. The lad was plump and brown, well fed and happy, but he was a slave; Rachid thanked him, tousled his hair, and dismissed him, chalking up yet another mark to Hassan... This was a household where the slaves were plump and laughing, and if he tried he could feel the happiness beneath this roof.
He was eager to meet Hassan that morning, but the sun was already high, almost at the zenith, before the captain returned. He was clad for riding, his boots dusty, his face grim, and Rachid's words of greeting froze on his lips.
Hassan brushed past him, heading for his rooms and his bath, and the mariner followed him, standing in the draped doorway to watch the bigger man disrobe and bathe. "What is wrong, Hassan?"
"I am in a less than sunny temper," Hassan admitted. "But then, executions never amuse me as they amuse Kabir."
"Executions?" Rachid frowned, absently admiring the other's milky skin. "Who? And for what?"
"Ten men, all of them peasants... for stealing." Hassan ducked his head under the water, emerging with his short, dark hair streaming. He rubbed at it with towelling and seemed to wash away the taint of bad feeling with the dust of the road. "It is my duty as the captain of the city guard to officiate at these things... I hate it. I cannot bear it." He gave a shudder. "Kabir was there... He smiles like a snake when men die, and I have seen him become aroused." Again, a shudder, and Hassan would not look up at his guest.
"You cannot bear to look at my face," Rachid said softly. "Because of him. Last night, you..."
There was a catch in the mariner's voice; his Algerian accent thickened with regret, and Hassan heard the emotion with a small start, returning to the present with an effort. "Last night? You saw --?"
"I am not blind." Rachid smiled sadly. "You think I have never seen that look before on a man's face?"
"You?" Hassan crooked one of his irregular brows at the seaman and had to smile. "At sea, among your fellows... I pray only that they are not the kind who will hurt that which they desire."
"On Sinbad's ship that is a crime," Rachid told him. "I have seen men put ashore for less. Sinbad is... special."
"And dear to you," Hassan observed with a slight edge in his voice.
Rachid shrugged. "He is my friend. If he is not blind to my body, what of it?"
"And what about you?" Hassan sat down in a cane chair, naked and towelling his fair skin absently. "How do you feel?"
"That is none of your concern," Rachid said gently. "What I have been, and who, before we met, is not for you to grow troubled about... I have not been hurt, least of all by my captain; this I can tell you. All else is unimportant."
"Honourable," Hassan smiled.
"I try to be." Rachid mirrored the smile. "Last night you wanted me... This morning you cannot stand the sigh of my face."
Hassan shook his head. "No. I cannot bear Kabir's face. Yours is the same -- yet so different. Alive, warm. You smile with your eyes and laugh with your heart. They call Kabir beautiful, but he is beautiful in the way that diamonds and ice crystals are beautiful. You? A warm hearth, a sunny day, living and free."
"Beautiful?" Rachid laughed. "Healthy and young, maybe... It is of no matter."
"Isn't it?" Hassan said throatily, and moved the towel a little, revealing the truth he had been hiding with it. He let his eyes smoulder on the smaller man. Rachid stood in the doorway, his robe of peacock blue silk clinging loosely to him, his chest, forearms and right leg bared by its folds, his hair tousled and his skin like brown velvet. And Hassan was nursing a throbbing erection. "No matter, eh? My wilful body has other ideas."
The green eyes darkened by shades, and Rachid shut the door behind him. "I hardly know you," he whispered.
"I know. And I will not rush you into any scene," Hassan said. "The door is open behind you -- leave if you want to. There will be time for everything, sweet boy." He looked up, expecting Rachid to leave at once, but the mariner stood still, his eyes warm, inviting. "What?" Hassan whispered. "Why do you smile?"
"I smile at you," Rachid said teasingly. "You, whose slaves are plump and have time to sing and laugh, you who run home to wash away the filth, not of the road, but of the execution you were forced to witness. You would let me walk out of here, wouldn't you? And ache with wanting. I know you better than you might think, Hassan... I know your heart."
"Do you?" Hassan felt the weight of the green gaze on him, and his body was aching. He swallowed as he watched Rachid step closer, and a moment later the peacock blue silk robe was on the floor and the mariner was standing before him, naked, waiting.
He was not aroused yet, but he was beginning to breathe a little rapidly, and when Hassan reached out to stroke the flat of one palm across the smooth chest and belly he shivered. His skin was hot and silky, almost hairless, but the thatch at his groin was as richly brown as the cap on his head, and as luxurious.
"I want you," Hassan whispered, looking up to see the deep green eyes close.
"Touch me," Rachid murmured. "Touch me, please."
And so Hassan touched him. He picked up the small, hard body, finding it light and sweet, and placed it on his bed, which was still rumpled from the night, and stood back to watch Rachid stretch like a cat. He was becoming aroused as Hassan watched, his back rubbing on silk sheets, his long, slender legs spreading to invite the other's touch. Hassan knelt between his thighs, wanting to look at him first. His cock was fine and slender, arching up now, and when he touched the balls in their furry sac he felt them twitch as Rachid gave a moan of delight.
The ache in Hassan's groin became a deep yearning, and he leaned forward, letting the mariner feel his weight. Rachid wriggled until he was comfortable and looked up with jade-dark eyes, his mouth open, inviting. Hassan's lips came down on it and neither of them was breathing as they savoured their first kiss.
Rachid's legs wrapped about him, and Hassan's mind spun with dark rapture as he felt the smaller man begin to writhe against him in earnest. He had spent the night trying not to imagine this, lest he steal into his guest's room and take advantage of him. But Rachid welcomed him this morning, and there was a blaze of passion between them that was bewildering in its intensity. Hassan had not felt its like in years, and he was listening to husky moans and curses from the mariner that were equally as awed... Rachid had been his captain's lover, of that Hassan was certain; but he had found in Sinbad the mate of his body, not his soul.
Almost from the moment the seafarer and the captain of the city guard had met, on the moonlit beach, there had been more -- a strange tugging sensation, as of two magnets, hopelessly drawn together and with no individual will to resist.
Hassan paused, lifting his head and looking down at his companion. There were scars all over Rachid's body, and every one of them would have a story to account for it. There were shackle galls on his wrists too, and at these the captain frowned, for the moment reining back on the tide of fierce lust, wanting to slow them down before it was all over.
"You have been in irons, at some time," he observed breathlessly.
"Wha --?" Rachid could barely hear, let alone understand, but he too fought to rein in the power of what he was feeling. Sweat glistened on his skin as he got back control. "Oh, that. Aye, I was a prisoner for almost a year on a ship out of Marakesh. It is how I came to meet Sinbad-- he sank the galley and freed the men who had slaved on it." There was a look of no little horror on Hassan's face that made Rachid smile. "It is not as bad as you might think; we were fed, and but for the confinement we were left alone... I was less than pretty on that voyage and no one paid me heed."
"Less than...?" Hassan prompted. "You?"
"I fought when they captured me; my face was black and blue, swollen and ugly; and by the time the bruises faded I was heavily bearded and looked no better or worse than the other captives. I am a little thin now, but you should have seen me then! Sinbad had to carry me from the wreck."
"And earned your loyalty," Hassan murmured, bending to bury his face in the soft brown hair. "I thank Allah that the Captain was in the right waters that day."
The green eyes were glassy and Rachid's body would no longer remain still, no matter what he asked of it. "Are we making love, or are we discussing maritime practices?" He demanded. "Can we not talk of this later?" His sharp, white teeth bit into Hassan's neck, branding him.
The sliver of pain from the love-brand scorched Hassan's every nerve, and the heat welled up fast again. He rolled onto his back to put Rachid on top, and pulled his head down to a fierce kiss. They were wrestling in earnest then, and Hassan coiled his fingers into the other's long hair in an effort to restrain Rachid. The mariner, for all his slight build, was surprisingly strong, and Hassan grunted in astonishment as his wrists were captured and held securely over his head. It was the first time anyone had ever restrained him, and he felt a thrill of forbidden excitment roll through him.
No catamite, this; no boy who would kneel for him and give without guestion the pleasures for which he craved... If he was to have Rachid in that way, Hassan knew suddenly -- Rachid would have him. Equal terms, equal rights. He shivered, unable to hold back as the thought of his own surrender finished him. He came violently, clutching the smaller man hard against him and feeling the wet heat begin to stream from Rachid in answer; his straingin cock thudded against his lover's belly.
They clung together, sticky and drenched with perspiration, and it was Rachid who stirred first. His eyes were dark, like cedars aainst a storm sky, and his mouth was soft and swollen. "You did want me... I am grateful that you left me, last night. For all the tensions that made it hard to sleep, it made this morning sweeter."
"Tensions?" Hassan echoed dreamily, combing through Rachid's hair. "You have been at sea a long time, but not without loving."
"True," Rachid smiled. "But I had had in mind loving of a different sort when I came ashore. I was thinking of women... I enjoy them as much."
"As do I," Hassan agreed. Or, I did, he added soundlessly, finding that he was feasting his eyes on the newcomer into his life with a new, almost frightening intent. Unfamiliar feelings of possessiveness wormed through him and he shied away from them, knowing how absurd they were. Allah -- Rachid was a stranger, he barely knew him, and if he was beautiful, beguiling, what of it?
In simple self-defence, Hassan released his grip on the other man and reached for the corner of one silk sheet to mop at the cooling stickiness on his belly. The semen was irrevocably mixed, his and Rachid's; the thought made him shiver again.
"Are you cold?" Rachid asked with a yawn. "I would have thought the morning was too warm for comfort."
Hassan forced a smile. "Come and share my bath," he offered, "for we both need it. Then we will set to work."
The water was tepid and soothing, and they luxuriated in it, sitting apart and admiring each other without words. Rachid, sated and at peace, fell into a doze, still aware of the sounds about him but too drowsy to pay attention as Hassan stepped out of the bath and sent for servants ans slaves. The click of the door woke him and he looked up with a deep yawn as the boy who had brought him food earlier returned, bringing a laden tray and an armful of silk.
"Clothes for you," Hassan told him. "I hope they are to your liking."
Colours fascinated Rachid. He loved blue and red and gold, and somehow Hassan had guessed. The silks were expensive, on his skin they felt like the kiss of a butterfly. He dressed in robes of white and turquoise and gave Hassan a smile of gratitude. "I have money and will pay for these."
"Not in money," Hassan said huskily.
"I do not pay debts in bed," Rachid warned. "Love is not a means of trade or payment to me -- I have seen too much of that."
"You are going to risk your life in our cause," Hassan shrugged. "For that you are due enough gold to purchase a ship of your own, so I promised you, remember. Consider the clothes... a downpayment." He paused and grinned. "Or, consider them a gift. And this, too." On his fingers were several rings, and he drew one of them off, handing it to his companion with a half-bow.
Rachid took it and tried its fit; it went onto his left index finger, fitting as snugly as he had hoped. He cocked a brow at Hassan. "What are you proposing?" the emphasis on the key word made them both chuckle. "The only rings offered to me in my life have been of the sensual variety, and do not fit on your hand."
"A pact," Hassan suggested. "Which I think we have sealed already... Your body is sweet beyond compare. I shall want it again, I am afraid."
"Afraid?" Rachid purred huskily. "You? This I cannont imagine. Now, is there work to be done?"
"Aye." Hassan picked at his food, distracted by the job at hand. "I must teach you Kabir's every way, and you must learn to be him, since an error could mean the death of us all. Tonight my partners in this enterprise will be here to meet you, and with luck we shall astonish them. Here, sit back in the chair -- Kabir is an arrogant sod; set your feet apart and your arms on the chair's... This is how he sits, mostly."
"Uncomfortable," Rachid observed. "Though I expect I will get used to it... Hassan, one thing has me worried. Kabir is married, is he not?"
"With four wives, each reputedly lovelier thatn the next," Hassan affirmed. "You are worried that, in sleeping with them, you will betray yourself/"
"Aye," Rachid said ruefully. "Not even you will know how the prince makes love -- no one knows but his bedmates, and since you have spent these years hating him, I somehow do not think you have shared pleasure with him."
"I should say not," Hassan snorted. "But I have heard from those who have. Boys at court have a habit of talking in whispers that unfortunately carry... Kabir is not a gentle lover; he likes young boys, seldom kisses even his favorite wife, and is quick to take what he wants and leave. He prefers his bedmate on her knees, or his, so I have heard from the catamites who have taken part in threesomes and so
on. There is little joy in the union for his mate, though Kabir himself is quickly satisfied."
Rachid sighed heavily. "And I must sleep with his wives for a month before I may abdicate?"
"Plead illness," Hassan suggested. "The women will surely not complain, and you can, that way, keep out of the sight of such courtiers as might see Rachid instead of Kabir. The illness is as fair a reason as any for abdication." He shrugged. "There are dangers... To us all." A pause, and then Hassan leaned forward, setting a cup into Rachid's hands. "Hold it by the bottom, and curl your fingers around it... so. Aye, that is one of Kabir's reflexes, and as much as anything else will convince observers. He is fond of the hashish, too. Do you ever use it?"
"No," Rachid said. "I prefer to be clear headed. Must I dope myself -- it could be dangerous if I am drugged. I would forget who I am supposed to be."
"Merely burn it in the room," Hassan said. "Let the slaves and visitors smell it s presence, they will assume you are pickled in it as Kabir often is."
There was a lot to learn and Rachid's head was swimming with the wealth of tiny detail before the day was out. He stood on the house's flat roof, among potted plants and caged birds, to watch the sun set, grateful for an hour's respite. Hassan had ridden out to meet secretly with his associates after they had eaten, but the meal had not been a pleasure, for he had used it as a lesson. Rachid had been compelled to learn another's table habits, and it made the simple act of eating a chore. Kabir was fastidious, but he ate too much, and Hassan had forced more food on his guest than the seafarer would have liked. 'I shall grow fat', he had said in mock argument, and Hassan had just laughed. 'A little meat on those sharp bones of yours will make you more cuddlesome in bed'!
The evening was cool; Venus was aloft -- the navigator in Rachid appreciated the evening star while the romantic in him worshiped it, and he wondered what the night would bring. Would he spend it in Hassan's bed? AFter the almost unbearable pleasure of the morning, he found himself hoping that he would.
The clatter of hooves in the courtyard announced the arrival of the captain and his friends, and Hassan waved up at the roof where he saw Rachid watching. With a billow of black cloak he vanished from sight and the mariner waited, hearing footsteps on the stairs that led up the house's east wall. He did not turn to watch his host approach, but was surprised and delighted when strong arms slid about him and a kiss fell on his nape.
"They have come to see you for themselves," Hassan said softly. "Can you play the part for them?"
"Who are they?" Rachid asked, turning about and finding himself in a loose embrace.
"Merchants and men from the court. An officer from the sultan's army, one of his ministers. All of them above suspicion. We loved the old man as we despise his son. We have nothing to fear yet. Here, a kiss for courage?"
Rachid liked to be kissed, Hassan knew. He responded at once to any such display of affection, and Hassan's heart warmed. This endearing little creature had not had an easy life, but he had not yet learned bitterness or sourness. To him, affection was free and to be cherished. To Hassan, jaded by the wiles of the court, the simple pleasure Rachid derived from merely kissing was like a breath of fresh air. The kiss, consequently, was long and deep, and they were both short of breath when it broke.
"Your mouth is swollen now," Hassan said wryly. "They will know you have been busy at love."
Rachid choked off a guffaw. "Yours too," he said, touching his fingertips to Hassan's mouth. "I will do my best."
As Hassan watched, his guest slipped into the act. His face cooled, the features that, on Rachid, were so warm and alive, crystalised, became diamond-hard and icy. The light died out of his eyes and when he walked he did so with an arrogant swagger. Hassan drew back, murmuring an oath.
"Good enough?" Rachid asked coldly, in the accent of these islands.
"Too good," Hassan admitted. "Good enough to drown."
"Then tell your associates to expect royalty in their midst," Rachid continued.
There were four men in Hassan's apartments, drinking coffee and smoking bubble pipes; the odours of tobacco and sandalwood were thick in the air. Hassan led the way, asking Rachid to remain outside until he had prepared the men. General Hussein, the merchant from Morocco, Faisal, two others who were heavily cloaked, their faces in shadow, their tongues silent.
All of them gaped when Hassan swung open the door to admit the Prince; Rachid stood straight, arrogance and hostility written in his every bone. He surveyed them with icy indifference before dismissing them and turning back to Hassan. Then he waited.
"You are a seafarer," Hassan prompted.
"I am not," Rachid said loftily in Sinbad's distinctive accent. "I am Kabir, heir to the sultanate of Zerindah; why do you not make obeisance before me?"
"Why not indeed?" Hassan said drily, crooking one brow at Faisal and Hussein. "You see? One day and he is almost perfect."
The merchant nodded. "At first glance, so he is. But there are differences. His hair is too short."
"It will grow," Hassan shrugged. "He will not undertake the role for another month, and in that time it will be long enough.
"His hands are coarsened with labour," Faisal said doubtfully.
"Given a month they will soften," Hassan argued. "He can soak them in oil, which will help."
"His skin is too dark from the sun," Hussein added.
"The juice of the lemon, rubbed into it, will take out a little of the colour," Hassan smiled. "He also wore a moustache until yesterday, but I saw no good reason to panic when I own a razor... I see nothing that cannot be sculpted to perfection, my friends. One day, and he had the walk and the voice. He is a mimic by nature."
The men turned their backs on Rachid to consult with one another in whispers, and Rachid sat down on the end of a divan, feeling out of place and ill at ease. Only Hassan spared him any attention, and that was merely a glance and an absent smile. The conference went on too long, and he left the room without a sound, returning to his own apartment and calling for coffee. The plump boy brought it, served him and was about to leave, but Rachid called him back and bade him sit down. "What is your name?"
"Yussef," the boy smiled, sitting at Rachid's feet. "You are a sailor, so the women tell me. Have you sailed far?"
Rachid smiled, thinking back on the many voyages he had made. "Aye, far indeed. I sail with Captain Sinbad. You know the name, I see! Just so; everyone knows it. The Griffin lies at anchor just off your shore... But tell me about your master. Who is Hassan, what has he done in his life?"
"He was a soldier," Yussef told him. "He fought on many campaigns for Sheik Ibn Jemail, until he was taken prisoner by the hill tribes in the north. When he was returned to his home, he had not the spirit to ride to war again, and became an officer with the guard."
"He was sent home?" Rachid asked.
"They traded hostages," Yussef nodded. "My master was not well treated, this I know -- though I was very young at the time and have no memory of it myself. They say -"
"Yussef!" Hassan's voice said loudly from the door, "that is more than enough. Be off with you, lad, and leave us to business." The rebuff was tempered with a pat on the boy's head as he scurried through the door, and then Hassan closed it behind him and came to look down at Rachid's waiting face. "They are satisfied with you; they will stake their lives on this venture, and pay you in gold at the end of it. You have surprised them indeed."
"Have I?" Rachid nodded acceptance and sat back on the divan, his eyes fixed on Hassan's face. "Yussef told me you were a soldier until they made you a hostage."
"As you slaved for a year on a galley," Hassan shrugged, "and had to be carried off it when it was sunk."
"They treated you badly."
"Hostages are never treated kindly," Hassan growled. "It is a long time ago. I got over the injuries in a few months and am as well and strong as ever I was, so think no more of it."
There was the oddest compunction to ask to share it, and Rachid had to govern his words; dredging up old mud would serve no purpose, he knew, adn as much as he ached to know, and help ease the bad old memories, he said nothing. Hassan would speak of it when he was ready to, if ever.
"It is late," Hassan was saying quietly. "We have had a busy day... I would to bed now." The green eyes gazed up at him, unblinking. Waiting, receptive to suggestion but not asking, he noticed with amusement. "I should be grateful for your company," he added, "if you would care for mine."
Rachid stood with smile. "Will I sleep the whole night in your bed, or return here when we are spent? I will take a robe with me if you will cast me out by-and-by."
"Cast you out?" Hassan chuckled. "You will be welcome in my bed as long as you wish to be there... Do you snore?"
"Never having been awake to hear myself, I cannot say," Rachid said drily. "If I do, wake me."
"Fair enough," Hassan said with mock solemnity. "For I cannot abide a bedmate who snores."
"Neither," Rachid confided, "can I."
Hassan's bed had been remade with cream silks that were cool and inviting, and Rachid luxuriated in the bed. He was used to sleeping in a hammock, and the offer of down pillows and a feather mattress was priceless. He let Hassan undress him with a smile. "Pampering me brings you much pleasure."
"So it does." The blue eyes were bright with good humour. "What do you like, Rachid? What would you have me do with you?"
The mariner's bony shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Whatever pleases you -- aside from pain, of course!"
Suddenly there was a blank expression on Hassan's finely sculptured face, and his eyes shuttered. He withdrew his hands and turned away to disrobe, his back to his guest.
"Hassan? What is it -- what have I said?" Rachid asked softly; and then some inkling of the truth dawned on him. He paced closer and put one hand on Hassan's bare back. "When I spoke of pain a moment ago I was jesting. I did not mean that I thought you would hurt me... Or would want to cause hurt to anyone."
A huge sigh escaped Hassan. "I know... Old memories, Rachid. I cannot foret what has been."
"You were a hostage," Rachid whispered. "What happened to you?"
"What you would expect," Hassan shrugged, tossing his robes aside and turning back to the mariner. "It happens to many people, not only hostages, and since they did me no permanent injury I ought to be thankful for that! Here, let us forget the past. Both of us have times we would sooner forget. Let me love you."
There was a smouldering hunger in the blue eyes that had been building since they had kissed on the roof, and Rachid knew he would be prey to Hassan's lust tonight. But he was just as sure that he was safe and cherished, for all that he would be possessed. Hassan knew all about hurt and fear, and they were abhorrent to him. There was much about him that was like Sinbad, though he was unaware of it... And much that was not.
Sinbad was an easy, generous lover, but there was nothing fierce or desperate about his affection. He would knock at Rachid's cabin door, look inside with a smile and simply raise one brow at his first mate. If Rachid felt like an hour's laughter and play, so be it, if not -- the Captain would read or listen to the boy who played the lute.
Hassan was different in so many ways. There was a hunger about him that was irresistable, a power about his eyes, and his touch was like lightning. There was no laughter, the games were breathless and ecstatic, and Rachid knew what he wanted. Cloudy with desire, Hassan's blue eyes burned him. "I want you," he whispered hoarsely.
"I know," Rachid smiled. He traced his fingers from Hassan's chest to his belly, tickling, before closing them about the big, hard shaft and pulling it gently. The blue eyes closed; a shudder coursed through Hassan.
"Only with your consent," Hassan said through clenched teeth. "There is oil by your right hand... Please. I shall not harm you."
"I know that too," Rachid said huskily. He reached for the phial of oil and placed it in Hassan's palm. "There. Take care, Hassan... Oh, I wish you could see your face! I am not made of thistledown, you will not break me so easily."
"It..." Hassan swallowed, closing his eyes. "It has been a long time since I took a man this way. It is shameful what you do to me -- my heart is like that of a young girl!"
If he told the truth, Rachid's heart was also beating too fast. Hassan's body was like alabaster by comparison to his own tanned limbs, cool and beautiful. More beautiful than Sinbad's muscular frame, he thought, and less intimidating, because Hassan was not so much taller than he was himself.
And Hassan was hesitant with something near fear. "What is it? Why do you hold back?" He asked huskily, watching the blue eyes focus on him, filled with hunger and pain. "I thought you found me pleasing to your eye."
"To my eye, to my hands, to every part of me," Hassan admitted. "It is more than this, though... In here." He tapped his chest. "I feel the sweetest ache, and it frightens me." He looked down into Rachid's smooth face, watched the green eyes fill with tears. But Rachid was smiling, a soft, incalculably gentle expression that took a face that was already beautiful and made it incandescent. "Like a painted angel," he whispered, fingertips feathering over eyes, nose, mouth, until Rachid sucked his fingers.
The fingers stilled, and for a moment they were quiet, looking at one another in the lamplight; then Rachid took back the phial of oil, opened it and poured a measure into his palm. Hassan watched helplessly as the green eyes bent to their task. The oil was cool, the caresses light but torturing.
A moment later Rachid was satisfied, and turned over onto his knees to wait, his legs spread, his cheek pillowed on his forearms. Hassan caught his breath, overtaken by a tide of lust that quickened his pulse. He was behind Rachid before he had got his breath back, fingers dilating him, making him ready. Rachid was not new to this kind of loving, he noticed vaguely as the heat scorched him and he pressed inside. But, being of small stature, he felt incredibly tight for all the fact his virginity was long lost. He pushed back and Hassan's mind swam --
The memories of many years before revolved before his inner eye. Sand and rock, nomadic herdsmen, always moving, never stopping in one place long enough to make escape a feasibility... Scorching sun, weariness as he walked with the other hostages and slaves behind the camels. Attempted escape, recapture -- hanging by his ankles as the cane cracked across his buttocks until he was raw; and later, unable to sit, raped on his feet, over a barrel of palm oil. Punishment and gratification in one. It had not surprised him, nor had it injured him, but the days that followed were a nightmare of pain and fear, and he did not attempt to escape again... Months of confinement, manual labour, baking in the sun and serving in the chieftain's bed; then, freedom.
It had been years before he could look at another man as an object of desire, and there had been only a few in all the time since he had been a hostage. The body of a man, moving against his, reminded him too keenly.
Even Rachid's slender, smooth body reminded him, and he had to fight to keep a grip on the present and the past in its place. He entered the beautiful body with a sob, knowing full well that Rachid, in time, would ask this of him in return, praying that he would be able to give him what he wanted.
It was Rachid's breathless moan of delight that drew him back properly to the present. He went down onto the sweat- slick back, his face pressed into the soft, brown hair, and let the smaller man writhe as he would; Rachid's hips rotated, bringing him surges of pleasure, and the husky voice was murmuring soft endearments. The smell of musk was strong between them. To Hassan that smell was Rachid, and he focused on it, using it to bind him to reality as he began to move at last.
There was a heady sense of bewilderment as he tried to recall -- had anyone else ever sent him so high? Hassan cried out as he came, filling his lover with his seed as Rachid heaved beneath him, caught aloft in his own release.
Ears still ringing, they rolled apart, lying on the rumpled silk to study one another. Hassan was exhausted, wrung out, and his eyes were heavy; but he saw the light in the other man's face and hoped he had correctly defined it... Rachid was in love. In the vulnerable moments after lovemaking it was impossible to hide the truth, and Hassan wondered what his own face betrayed.
"Rachid," he whispered. "Rachid -- ah, come here!" A moment later, Sinbad's first mate was in his arms, crushed against his chest, and Hassan was not aware that the words had escaped, willy nilly, from unwary lips. "Allah forgive me, but I love you!"
"You hardly know me," Rachid muffled against the hot, damp skin of Hassan's chest; but it was a token protest. Not in all the years he had sailed with Sinbad had he felt anything more than comradeship, sweetened by shared pleasures between the sheets. This was not the same, not the same at all.
They said no more, drifting into sleep, replete, content, and it was the crowing of the roosters that roused them with the sun. Hassan woke first, blinking at the man in his arms, smiling as he thought of the pleasures of the night; he kissed Rachid awake and found him hard as the green eyes fluttered open. The kiss clung, deepened, and they rocked together slowly, barely awake.
"Bath," Rachid said, minutes later, nose wrinkling as he surveyed himself, Hassan and the bed. "And then, what have you planned for today's education?"
"I have to go to the palace at noon," Hassan told him, his lips busy at Rachid's ear. "I have to meet with Kabir, make the garrison reports. Nothing important, merely time consuming. I would rather be here with you."
"Here," Rachid echoed. "In bed."
"Here," Hassan corrected, "at home. You have a very narrow imagination for one who has sailed the seas!"
Rachid got one elbow under himself; his face was a mask of pure mischief. "Imagination? If it's imaginiation you want, I can show you things you have never dreamed of. The pleasures of lands beyond your horizons."
Hassan winced. -
Hassan winced. "Perhaps my life has been too sheltered. I would not like to be shocked, you know."
A snort of laughter passed Rachid's lips and he sat up, one kiss lavished on his lover's mouth before he was padding away to bathe. Hassan watched him with lazy eyes, the eyes of one deeply under a spell, unable to see past the seafarer's grace and vivacious beauty. Sinbad, he thought wryly, was going to be much less than delighted when this prize left the Griffin.
The morning was spent at practise with the swords. Rachid was well versed in the arts, but he must learn Kabir's tricks with the scimitar. Fortunately, Hassan had sparred with the Prince often and knew them all. They worked in the courtyard, stripped to the waist and barefoot, laughing at the games while the servants and slaves looked on. Rachid was very fit, Hassan found, and though his skin gleamed with sweat he did not tire. Before noon, they were satisfied that the skills had been mastered, and took the midday meal together. The mariner was ravenous, eating more than usual, and Hassan reminded him of Kabir's ways at table. Rachid made a disapproving face, but complied with the lesson.
"I must go," Hassan said as they changed from sweat-damp garments to dry ones and played at tossing cedar-sweet perfume at each other. "Kabir will be waiting for me."
"Aye," Rachid nodded. "When will you return?"
"Before nightfall." Hassan was dressing as he spoke. "I will speak with Faisal and Hussein, too... There are many arrangements to be made. We must be well prepared."
"For when you switch me for the Prince," Rachid concluded.
"The night before the cornonation." Hassan swung his black cloak about his shoulders. "Since you read, you may have the keys to my library. I have fifteen books."
Rachid blinked. "I have never seen so many books in one place. I shall enjoy them."
"That is what books are for," Hassan said wryly. "Let me have your mouth again, and I must leave."
The kiss lingered in his mind on the ride to Kabir's palace, and thoughts of Rachid buttressed him against the coming audience. Hassan was apprehensive. He had made love with a man who was so very much like Kabir -- how would the Prince seem to him, now? The palace was marble and onyx, cool and dim, and he handed his horse to a Nubian slave, padding soundlessly to the vast rooms where Kabir entertained his petitioners and ministers.
He need not have been concerned. Kabir sat on cushions with a bubble pipe at hand, his eyes glazed slightly with the hashish, his face cold and remote, his long hair topped by a pale blue turban, his whole manner reflecting ill tempered boredom. Hassan saw the similarities in the features the two men shared but there was no confusing the two. He breathed a sigh of relief as he waited for his turn to approach the dais and speak with the heir to the kingdom. One elegant hand
beckoned him forward at last and he touched one knee to the marble tiles.
The report was routine and he doubted that Kabir was even listening. He studied the Prince with a frown, wondering yet again how such a man as his father could have sired Kabir. A cruel tyrant, in whose hands power was a tool of abuse. Other men had come to give their reports as to the business of the realm, and as Hassan had waited to be called forward he had heard of thi floggings, hand-loppings and executions that had taken place the previous day. His stomach churned as he saw Kabir's lips tug into what, on his face, passed for a smile. He forced his thoughts to Rachid.
The Prince heard him out and waved him away, and Hassan left the audience hall with gratitude, seeing Hussein and Faisal in the passage. They were waiting for him, and the looks on their faces betrayed good news.
"There is a way," Hussein said as Hassan closed the door to a private lounge where they would not be disturbed. "There will be so many servants in the palace the week of the coronation that one more will not be noticed. If Rachid comes in as a servant or a slave, with his face concealed, he can be hidden in your apartment here until the night of Kabir's crowning. Then we must make the switch, and we have a plan."
Faisal took up the plot, "It will be tricky but not impossible, for Kabir has played into our hands. Workmen have been labouring in the east wing to install the new baths, and he had had the connecting wall breached so that his apartments open directly into the pool rooms. There is a dressing room just on the inside... Stripped of his finery, he is but a man and Rachid will pass for him, so long as the light is dim and his scars do not show. We will make sure the light is very soft, and smuggle your man in as a servant. When Kabir enters the dressing room his 'servants' will overpower him and sweep him back into his apartments. No one will pay the slightest attenion, for -- Kabir will also leave the dressing room to bathe. We will have Kabir out of the palace in a linen basket, and safely locked away; it is foolproof."
"So it sounds," Hassan admitted. "Make sure of your facts, both of you. One mistake, and not only Rachid is dead, but all of us! Meanwhile, Rachid is an able student. He will surprise even you by his performance." He stirred. "I have had enough of the palace already to sicken me. Your leave."
They nodded farewell, engrossed in their schemes, and Hassan strode from the palace, his pace betraying his mood. Tension coiled in his innards, and not for the first time he turned his eyes to the sky and asked Allah what in the world he and his associates had got themselves into.
From the palace he rode to the garrison post in the town, there to review the rostas and oversee the day's business. There was little for the guard lieutenant to
report; Kabir's iron fist held the whole kingdom in a vicious grip, and both islanders and visitors knew better than to step out of line.
It was mid-afternoon before he was finished with his duties at the garrison post and there was further business to be attended to, minor domestic affairs that tied his hands and kept him in the cramped confines of the city until the sun was sinking in a lake of blood. The merchants and money lenders were scrambling through their preparations for the coronation -- and Hassan's thoughts returned to Rachid. There was still time for them to back out of the plan, cancel all their schemes, pay Rachid for his trouble and send him back to his ship before Sinbad sailed. The ship still rode at anchor in the bay to the west -- carefully guarded, with a crew aboard, so Rachid said, because the seamen knew not to trust the people of theses islands.
The people could be trusted, Hassan thought acidly as he headed for home at last... If they could once be rid of Kabir life in these waters would be peaceful and, more importantly, profitable. The islands lived on the sea trade, and Kabir was going to be the death of all that very soon.
A stable lad took his horse and Hassan swung his cloak from his shoulders as he entered the house. Yussef brought him water both to drink and cleanse himself of the road dust that caked his throat and skin. "What has become of Rachid?"
"He is in the library, looking at books," Yussef told him, concentrating on not spilling the water as he took the bowl away. "He has been telling stories of his voyages... If I were a freeman, I should be a mariner."
"Would you?" Hassan smiled after the boy and tried to picture him surviving in the kind of life Rachid had lived. He doubted that Yussef had what it took. Rachid was tough, for all his deceptively gentle looks; he had that indefinable quality that marked out the adventurer. A quality I once possessed, Hassan thought bleakly... Once, but not now. As an officer with the guard he was beyond compare, but the spirit to range far afield and wager his life on the toss of a coin had gone. And then Hassan smiled wryly as he considered the hare-brained scheme he had just entered into with the men he had met at the palace, and with the first mate of the Griffin. They were all mad -- cerifiably insane, he was sure.
The library was a cool, dim, shuttered room where the fifteen priceless, treasured books stood on individual stands. A lamp burned there as the sun set, and Hassan smiled as he saw his lover curled upon the floor, his nose in an ancient text that had been copied from a volume lost when the Library of Alexandria burned.
"Have you turned into a scholar?" he teased.
Rachid looked up in surprise. "I merely pass the time away. The day has been long and tedious." He grinned impishly. "I have had my hands in oil as you asked, but what is this about the juice of the lemon lightening my skin?"
"I'll show you after I have bathed and eaten whit you," Hassan offered. "It won't hurt, I assure you, and if you are to be as pale as Kabir, it must be done."
They ate in Hassan's rooms and the captain spoke of the plot hatched by his associates. Rachid was guardedly impressed and admitted respect both for the plan and its initiators. Hassan shrugged eloquently. "Still, many things could go awry at the last minute, but there will be little danger, I think. I will smuggle you into the palace --"
"As what?" Rachid asked. "A labourer?"
"No, slaves do the labouring in the palace; Nubians, as a rule and -- as tanned as you are, you would not pass for one of them! I would smuggle you in with your face concealed, also..." A flush of colour stole across Hassan's cheeks. "Would you go with me, just the once, as my catamite? It would be the safest way."
A momentary outrage made Rachid forget his meal, but it was quickly shrugged off. "Safety being the greatest concern, I suppose I could swallow my pride this once. Robes, and no one shall see my face."
"And no one would disturb you in my apartment until it is time for you to take your place. Luckily, my rooms almost adjoin Kabir's, since I am an officer with the guard." He sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Rachid, I know how your honour must bruise at this."
But the smaller man smiled. "Catamite for half an hour to get into the palace, prince for a month... The trade seems fair to me. I plead illness to avoid his wives..." The smile became a frown. "Will I be alone there, for that month? Surely that is too dangerous."
"Much too dangerous," Hassan agreed. "No, one of us will be with you at all times. Hussein and Faisal shall accompany you by day. And I by night, if I can arrange it."
Rachid's smile was back. "You have a yen to sleep in the prince's bed."
"I have a yen to be with you," Hassan said mildly. "Now, if you have finished eating, we shall look to your skin."
A basket of fresh lemons stood on the low table, and the mariner watched Hassan slice one of them in two with his dagger; giving the fruit a look of deep suspicion, he took off his robe. "This will bleach my skin?"
"Little by little," Hassan nodded, moving closer and seating himself on the cushions by his side. "Not overnight, but in a week or a fortnight you will notice that you are a paler shade."
"A fortnight?" Rachid demanded. "You mean I must endure this more than once?"
"Relax," Hassan grinned, "you may like it."
The fruit was cool and envigorating, tingling on his skin, and Hassan stroked it to and fro with a sensuous intent, slicing into it as the surface dried. Amused, he watched Rachid's eyes close; the sensual little animal did like it, and soon he was stretched out on the cushions, purringas Hassan played. The scent of Lebanon lemons clung about him, and Hassan bent to taste his skin, fascinated by the flavour of salt and citrus. Rachid pried open one eye as he felt the licking kisses on his chest; Hassan was licking toward his nipples, tickling him until he laughed.
Rachid's laughter was infectious, and soon Hassan had forgotten the job he had set out to do and was wrestling with his lover, a writhing tangle of arms and legs that could have only one possible result. The laughter stilled with arousal and the lemons, the prince and the dangerous schemes were forgotten until Rachid came back to his senses and wrinkled his nose. "I smell like a marketplace fruit seller's stall. Bath." He heaved a yawn and smiled sleepily at Hassan. "Share it with me?"
"That," Hassan admitted candidly, "is the best offer I have had all day."
For two weeks there was an air of absurd unreality about the whole scheme, but as the city began to bustle in preparation for the coronation reality encroached, and Rachid began to acknowlege the knot of tension in his innards. He had mastered Kabir's every gesture, often mockingly cursing Hassan as a cruel task master, both in and out of bed. Hassan had possessed him several times, and Rachid did not hide the fact that he wished to return the pleasure.
A week before the coronation, the fretting apprehension began to cost him sleep, and the nights became very long, despite his lover's presence and attentions. He tossed fitfully, unable to be still, and at length Hassan sat up with an expression of some irritation.
"You are like a dog with fleas! Be still, will you?"
"I cannot," Rachid said a little sullenly. "A week from now we all may be dead -- palace intrigue! Give me an enemy and a sword in my hand, some foe I can see and understand."
"Aye," Hassan admitted, "it is a trying time. But you must rest or you will be exhausted when you must be at your best." He stroked the furrowed, slightly damp forehead beneath the luxuriant fringe. "Come, now; before sailing into danger, what would you do?" Rachid muttered something Hassan could not hear. "Again, and clearly this time."
The husky voice rose a tone. "I would mate and be mated until I cannot think, then sleep like a babe!" He scowled at his bedmate. "You have possessed me once this evening already."
Hassan's pulse rate doubled in an instant and he swallowed. "You want me, don't you?"
"Aye." Rachid rolled onto his side, chin pillowed in one palm. "Why should I not? You are beautiful, and you lighten my heart... Twice you have spoken of love to me. I want you, Hassan -- of course I do!"
The green eyes were smouldering, alive, and Hassan knew that his time of reckoning was at hand. Rachid was generous with his body, frank about his needs, and unfailingly gentle.
He looked away, unable to face the heat and yearning in the seafarer's face. "Then I suppose you must have me," he said softly.
"You suppose?" Rachid frowned, "Do you not want me?"
"Not want --?" Hassan gave an involuntary chuckle. "Now, there is a foolish notion. Oh, pay me no heed, love. Old memories are hard to cast aside."
Old memories. Rachid shuffled closer, one arm crooking about the other's strong neck, and the kiss he pressed to Hassan's mouth was deep and yet oddly undemanding. Hassan opened to it, relishing the gentle ravishing of his mouth, the heat gathering in his belly. When they broke apart Rachid's lips were a little swollen, his eyes desire-dark and misted. Hassan's wilful heart skipped a beat and he smiled, shaking his head ruefully over his lover. "Ah, sweetheart, how can I refuse you anything?" He gave Rachid's nose a tiny kiss and reached for the bottle of oil he had used earlier, placing it in a slender, waiting hand. "With love and gentleness, please."
"Only ever with love," Rachid said huskily, and Hassan saw the fever of wanting behind his eyes.
He was as good as his word; a thousand caresses, each a fraction more intimate than the last, swept Hassan aloft on a gale of delight that was beyond bearing until, when he found himself on his knees with Rachid buried inside him, he barely remembered the old nightmares at all. Rachid took him tenderly, slowly, his technique sure and skillful, suspending them both on a peak that was beyond Hassan's imaginings. The coming was deep, racking, and the cry of delight escaped from his throat unheeded.
Effort flushed Rachid's skin, his eyes were heavy and his body lax on Hassan's back until the captain rolled to dislodge him, pulling him back into a hug and kissing him.
"Only ever with love," Rachid slurred.
"Then say it," Hassan whispered while he still commanded his courage and had the other man momentarily in thrall. "Say it -- I want to hear it."
"I love you," Rachid breathed, sliding fast into sleep. "I love... you..."
Those three words had never been spoken to Hassan before; whispered, breathily, soft and lush, into his hair, they hit him like a physical blow. He did not realize he was weeping until he tasted the salt of his own tears, and he studied the face of the man sleeping in his arms with a sense of mingled joy and fear. The joy went right through to the marrow of his bones; the fear chilled him. Soon, so soon, the game was on, and Rachid would be in such danger as Hassan had only just come to appreciate.
Sleep eluded him but he was grateful for the hours of stillness and peace. His body was still tingling, only a little sore, as Rachid had been so gentle, and the soreness served only as a reminder of where his lover had been. the thought of Rachid's strength and power, leashed in and held on a tight rein so as to bring only indescribable pleasure made him shiver. It was only hours later that Hassan realized that the bad old memories of his youth had been laid, at last, to rest. Then he buried his face in Rachid's warm, bony shoulder, and slept.
The Griffin sailed with the evening tide two days before the coronation, and Rachid paced the house and garden, fretting, feeling very much alone. He had sailed with Sinbad for years, every friend he had was aboard that ship; it felt as if, when it put out to sea, the Griffin took part of his life and heart with it. Guessing what ailed him, Hassan sent a runner to the garrison post in town, saying that he had eaten meat that was maggoty and was unfit to serve in the guard, and Rachid was grateful for his company and concern. Hassan was half inclined to mollycoddle him, but Rachid would not stand for that, fending him off with an inexhaustable supply of ribald jokes and making him blink with tales of far off lands. The tales were often erotic, and Hassan took what he heard with a pinch of salt. Sometimes the glitter of mischief in Rachid's eyes betrayed the tallness of the story, but sometimes he would seduce his lover to bed in the middle of the day and demonstrate some unlikely contortion so as to prove out the story he had told.
The distractions served to pass the time, for all too soon they were standing in Hassan's apartments and Rachid was scowling at the pretty looking robes of a catamite. They were rich, quite beautiful, and he had to admire them even as he oathed beneath his breath at what he was about to do. He gave Hassan a mock-glower. "The things I do for you!"
"You do a great service for this whole kingdom," Hassan said softly. "And this way my heart will be at peace. For a while at least I will know that you are in no danger. I will be on duty at the palace as part of the security detail, so they would expect me to be in residence. After that, the fact that I take with me a lover is hardly surprising."
"Aye," Rachid agreed, taking off his own clothes to put on the costly red and jewel green silks. "When must we leave?"
"Tonight. There is such chaos in the town as I have never seen before -- the inns are full up and people will be sleeping in the streets. Then the celebrations will begin -- noisier than a wake of a wedding! Among the confusion, who will notice a boy taken into the palace in the charge of the captain of the guard?"
Rachid bit off a guffaw and flexed his muscles. "A boy?"
"They." Hassan grinned, "will not know the difference when you are robed from head to foot and keep your beautiful eyes demurely down. Please, Rachid -- this once and never again. For the sake of my peace of mind if not your own safety."
The mariner pretended to consider the proposition and work his way to agreement, but they were merely playing with words to east their nerves. "This once," he said, pulling on the robe and folding his hands into the sleeves. "There, how do I look?"
"You want an honest answer?" Hassan asked wryly.
And Rachid laughed. "I think noe!"
An hour after sundown, they rode up to the palace, Hassan astride a spirited warhorse, Rachid sitting a pony that was, if anything, more costly that the big, rawboned animal, but not bred for rough work. Days in the country, he thought ruefully -- if Sinbad could see him now! Still, even Sinbad would not recognize him in the overly pretty robes, and only his eyes showed with the burnous caught up into the windings of a saffron turban.
Hassan was passed into the palace at once, and shepherded his charge into the private wing, one hand on his shoulder, a gesture of possession Rachid chose to tolerate for the sake of safety. He kept his eyes on the marble at his feet until the door had closed behind him, and then threw off the elaborate head gear with a curse. "Damn, how do people live in those things -- they are so hot!"
Pouring coffee, Hassan smiled at him. "Keep your voice down -- you are supposed to be a boy, remember. There is everthing you could need here; just remember, when the servants come to bring food or whatever is your whim, stay in the bedchamber behind the draperies so that they do not see your face."
"Anonymity," Rachid sighed.
"Survival," Hassan amended. "You are safe here; there will be only a moment's danger when we make the switch -- but then the hard work will begin, for I will not be with you. I must stand aside and you must go through the coronation on your own."
"Stand there with a face like a smoked herring," Rachid said scornfully, "while the holy men babble on from their scriptures -- the only difficult thing will be to stay awake long enough to get the crown on my head and retire to the privacy of Kabir's rooms!"
Brave words, but Hassan heard the catch of fretfulness in his voice, and came to offer the young mariner the comfort of his arms. Rachid was small and slender against him; at any other time he would have felt the surge of desire, but tonight there was too much tension in both of them. "I have duties to perform," he said softly, much later. "I must leave you for a while."
Rachid merely nodded and drew out of the embrace. "i will read; they have left a Koran on the table. It is not thrilling reading but often one may learn from it."
"I shall be back by midnight, or a little later," Hassan told him, tousling the fluffy brown hair as he left.
In fact, it was not much short of dawn before he returned, sliding into bed weary and tense. Rachid had not slept. nor did he expect to, and he was counting the hours until the scheme could be set in motion and completed.
Hassan spent little time with him as his duties were too many to be counted, and the time dragged. He could not eat and reading was impossible as he lost the ability to sit still. He took to pacing, expecting to wear a groove in the floor, and would barely be still even when Hassan did return. "What you need, my love," the captain told him, "is a whiff or two of the hashish to set your nerves at rest."
"Hashish?" Rachid made a face. "I would sooner pace and wring my hands! Oh, Hassan, what am I doing in this? I am not a courtier, I am a seaman! I should be miles away from here at the tiller of Sinbad's ship!"
"Away from me?" Hassan sounded less than amused.
The green eyes were bright with reproof. "That is not what I meant, as you are quite well aware!"
"You are beautiful when angered," Hassan told him glibly. "And if you were at the tiller of Sinbad's ship, how could you be with me also?"
A scowl tugged Rachid's brows together. "I meant only that I should be about my trade, no more. Come here."
Hassan went to him and collected a ravishing kiss.
"There," Rachid said tersely. "What say you of that?"
"Only that I would have you panting beneath me, had I time to manage it," Hassan smiled. "Alas, I have not. "Oh, Rachid, be still! You are wearing me out just watching you."
"I have too much energy to be still," Rachid growled.
"Then think of some way to expend it."
"Cooped up in here?" Rachid gave a derisive snort. "How, since you will be leaving in a moment more!"
"Go to bed," Hassan said smoothly, "and think of me while you lavish delight upon your body."
Rachid ceased his pacing and smiled at last. "Take care, my love -- I may do as you say."
"I hope you will," Hassan said, winking. "If I could secure one spare hour --"
With those words he fled, leaving Rachid smiling at the locked door. "Go to bed and lavish delight upon myself," he echoed. The excess of energy ws making him skittish as an unbroken colt, and he eyed the bed speculatively before indulging in an earthy chuckle. "Well, why not?"
Using all of Hassan's knowing touches, he spent his energies with slavish egocentricity, loving himself with as much fervour as he had ever loved another... But it was not the same, and he said so to the empty room. "For a catamite, I am getting precious little business!"
Tired, he slept at last; his last thought was that when he woke the Imam would be chanting special prayers for a special day... The day of a prince's coronation.
"You're going to kill Kabir, aren't you?" Rachid asked quietly as he dressed in the simple garb of a servant.
Hassan looked sharply at him. "We are not murderers."
"But surely it is too dangerous to leave him alive!"
"It is not so dangerous... What harm can he do, when he has been spirited far away?" Hassan shrugged almost indifferently. "He will live out his life with every pleasure save one. His freedom. We will give him a home, servants, women, boys as he desires them, anything, so long as he stays there -- on an island in the ocean, beyond the Pillars of Hercules."
"In exile," Rachid mused. "Is that wise?"
"As I have said, we are not murderers." Hassan stood back to study the servant who was before him, a slender youth in baggy white, his feet bare. "Remember, we loved his father, and no matter how much of a monster Kabir has made of himself, he is still blood of his father's blood. Better that he be cloistered in comfort where he can do no more harm, eh? Well, I think you will pass by unnoticed. Come, there is little time."
In his life Rachid had fought so many battles that he had lost count of them, but none of them had filled his innards with flocks of butterflies. If Sinbad hadn any notion of where his first mate was -- yet, if all went well, a month from now he would be a skipper himself, paid off in enough gold to purchase a ship and hire a crew. And leave Hassan? The thought brought a frown to Rachid's brow. That would be the hardest of all. Yet there was no change that Hassan would accompany him -- his days of roaming were over, he had a home to look to, and the prospects of mercenaring for pay made him shudder. Yet, Rachid thought as he followed Hassan from their rooms, can I join his household as his lover -- kept like a girl? I cannot! Life had become unbearably complicated since he had left the Griffin, and he almost wished for the relative peace and security of Sinbad's ship. Almost. Hassan caught him with a quick kiss as they left the room and suddenly Rachid knew where he would be... With Hassan. Not that he would be a kept, pet lover; but there would be somewhere to come home to after a voyage as master of his own vessel. The thought sustained him as he padded in Hassan's wake toward the Prince's rooms.
The door was guarded; the guardsmen only grinned at their commander, recognising Hassan at once, and they shared some gossip before passing him inside. "Just take a quick look around," Hassan said lazily. "Can't be too careful on a day like this."
With the door closed behind him, Rachid began to breathe again. He looked at the oppulence of Kabir's apartments with scornful eyes, his ear sharp for the sound of activity. "He's in the dressing room," he whispered.
"Preparing to bathe," Hassan agreed. "He is attended by two lads... They have been in the pay of Hussein since they were of age to understand and have no love of Kabir, who executed their kinsmen. See the laundry basket there? Kabir's bedding came in in it, and he will go out in it. Come, and tread lightly, love. The hunt is up."
The door to the dressing room which linked the apartments with the new baths stood ajar, and Rachid caught his breath as he caught his first glimpse of Prince Kabir. But for the fact his skin was devoid of scars, the two of them were twins. The scar on Kabir's cheek, where the bone had been smashed in his fall from a horse, was not so pronounced as Rachid's -- perhaps he had had better medical care, a whole kingdom fretting over him, whereas Rachid had suffered it out, healing as best as he could. But other than that, they would pass for the same man. The oil had made Rachid's hands soft and with the lemon juice his skin was shades fairer than it had been when he had been aboard the ship. Kabir was naked, his robes for the coronation waiting for him, and he was bullying the lads as they filed at his toe nails. Rachid's expression made Hassan smile; amazement mingled with utter scorn. He held one finger to his lips, motioning silence, and stepped into the dressing room, blocking Rachid from view with his body.
Kabir looked up, recognized the guard captain and frowned.
"What business have you here?"
"Business as usual," Hassan said mildly, "There is treachery everywhere, and I have come to check your apartments again."
"Then see to it," Kabir snapped, his temper shorter than usual. "They will be gathering in the hall by now."
Hassan merely smiled, and Rachid stepped with him as he moved carefully around behind the Prince. The blow that put Kabir down was expertly delivered; he sagged to the marble floor and Hassan got the lads moving in moments. "Come, then -- fetch the linen basket! Take Rachid's clothes with you. You know where to take it?"
They were going down to the rear of the palace, where the multitudinous slaves toiled night and day; there, a wagon was waiting already, ostensibly taking the silks out to be laundered. In reality, it was headed for an estate on the clifftop, Faisal's home. Kabir would be prisoner there for a short time, until a ship anchored offshore. Then, he would be gone. Forever.
The limp body was fed into the laundry basket and the silks pushed in after him before the lid slammed on it and the lads were on their way. Rachid was reaching for a towel to wrap around himself, but Hassan shook his head. "Kabir is conceited about his body. Beautiful and well endowed, you understand... Like yours. He will flaunt it whenever he is able."
"So I parade myself, naked as a whore," Rachid grumbled, turning toward the door that led to the baths. "My scars will be my betrayal."
"No." Hassan opened the door for him and indicated the soft lighting. No more than three lamps lit the room, and he smiled. "We anticipated every contingency... Go and bathe, my love. Take your time. Then return and dress, and -- this is important -- from now on remain silent. There will be dressing attendants to dry you and clothe you, and then the contingent from the guard at your door, waiting to shepherd you to the coronation. Keep your shoulders square, say nothing at all, get the crown on your head and mutter those words of oath and fielty we have taught you, then plead weariness to escape the banqueting, and... And remember that I love you."
The last made Rachid smile faintly. "Kiss me for courage."
"For courage? You, whose sweet body is scarred like that of an arena hand?" Hassan snorted, and kissed him anyway, giving him a pat on one deliciously rounded buttock to get him moving.
The light was very soft, and the water was cool; Rachid enjoyed neither, his every thought on the trial of the ceremony -- hundreds of people would see him, and if just one of them saw one item out of place, he was done for. Calling himself a fool for getting mixed up with the insanities of the scheme, he let the attendants dress him, held his tongue as he prowled to the door, and stepped out into the cool, ringing hallways. A squad of six guardsmen waited there, resplendent, intimidating, and he fell into step in their midst, praying beneath his breath that he would be alive to hear the Imam on the morrow.
The crowd was almost silent, well behaved, and Hassan stood among his friends and associates, his nerves crawling as he waited for the Prince, soon to be the sultan, to appear. The holy men were droning already, a big blue-and- gold bound Koran open on a velvet cushion beside the heavy, ornate crown that would soon find its way onto Rachid's head.
It was evening already; the breeze from open windows was freshening, bringing with it the smell of the sea, reminding Hassan that Rachid was a stranger, an alien here. He looked up at the whisper of sandaled feet in the passage beyond tall, double doors, and his heart skipped in his chest... Rachid carried himself proudly, not a shred of unease showing on his face, his expression one of disdain, entirely consistent with Kabir. Hassan smiled faintly. They would make it. They had to.
Even then, Kabir was miles away, still unconscious in the laundry basket, headed for a cellar, waiting for the ship that would spirit him away --
The holy men droned on. It was the longest hour Hassan had ever lived through; he could see faint lines of strain etching themselves into Rachid's smooth face as he watched, and when the young mariner looked directly at him for a moment he gave a nod; only wait, keep your head. Rachid understood, his chin inclining in acknowledgement, his eyes lingering wistfully on the crown. When the velvet weight of it was lifted over him he held his breath, sensing that they were going to get away with it. He closed his eyes, waiting until it was securely in place, weighing his neck down as the priests droned on. There were words for him to repeat, an oath of honour -- loyalty to the kingdom and to Islam... He echoed the pledges in Sinbad's accent, carefully scanning the faces nearest to him, and seeing nothing in their expressions to quicken his heart.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The priests withdrew, he got to his feet, and the crowd parted to make way for its new sovereign. Rachid's muscles were cramped with tension and nervous fatigue, and it took some time for him to realize that he was being spoken to... Some minister whose face he did not know, mouthing polite words that were expected of him. He curled his lip at the man, rejecting the calculated platitudes as he made his way through the ornate doorway into the short passage that led to the feasting halls.
Tables were laid, and he took his place at the head of the longest of them. The food was sumptuous, but he did not care for it; abruptly, he felt nauseous, and he searched around for Hassan, summoning him with one crooked finger. Hassan approached, according him a deep bow before leaning close to listen.
"How soon can I retire?" Rachid hissed.
"Eat one piece of chicken so that the others can begin their gorging," Hassan whispered, "then call for the physician, say your head is aching... He will doubtlessly press a tincture on you, but refuse it. Kabir would treat with scorn the attentions of his physicians."
Eating was unpleasant, but Rachid forced the food down, following it with strong, bracing coffee, before he sent an attentive lad for old Olimar, the physician who had served three generations of this family.
Olimar did not like Kabir, that was obvious in the halting, reluctant way he spoke. Rachid governed his voice into an acid tone, demanding attention and getting it from all within earshot. "I have a head like a nest of bees, Olimar."
"A medication?" Olimar said mechanically.
"I'll have none of your druggist filth," Rachid retorted, getting to his feet. "Let me escape this rabble, I shall survive." He turned swiftly, a whirl of scarlet silk, and gave Hassan a level frown. "You there. Accompany me."
"Sire." Hassan pushed away from the table and followed his lover out through a quiet side door in the hall. It led into the private realms of the palace where guests rarely trod, and was their means of escape. Rachid quickened his pace, knowing the layout of the building from its floor plans. He did not slow until he saw Kabir's door, and then let Hassan go ahead to open it for him.
A foot inside the ridiculously splendid room, he sagged against the guard captain, grateful for the support of Hassan's arms. "You know, it was no lie. I do have a head like a hive of bees -- and angry bees at that!"
"Do you?" Poor love." Hassan kissed his temple, drawing him toward the prince's boudoir and fetching water and sweetmeats. "Sit down and I will rub your shoulders. Take off the robe... There. Allah, you're knotted up like fishing nets!"
"That surprises you?" Rachid sipped at the water, beginning to slowly uncoil under Hassan's strong, clever hands. "Oh, that feels good," he purred, sliding down to the feather mattress so that Hassan could rub his back. "Your hands are magic."
A kiss fell in the middle of the smooth, bare back, and Hassan swatted the shapely rump in its baggy white trousers. "I am proud of you. You were Kabir to the life. Many among the crowd cursed the name of Kabir when they crowned you."
"Then I am very glad," Rachid said drily, "that my name is not Kabir." He rolled over, urging Hassan to lie down with him.
"Can you stay with me tonight?"
"I think so." Hassan gazed about the boudoir, which was decorated in white, blue and gold, with gauzy drapes and much silk and velvet. "I shall sleep in Kabir's bed, then."
"My bed," Rachid corrected. "You shall have me int it."
"Perhaps you should have me, all things considered," Hassan said softly. "They crowned you as my sovereign, and I am merely a captain of the guard, humble and adoring."
"Humble?" Rachid gave a noisy guffaw.
"Adoring, then," Hassan conceded.
"And obedient?" the mariner's green eyes glittered with amusement now.
"Well... up to a point," Hassan allowed. "What do you want?"
Rachid stretched sinuously. "Kiss me."
Hassan began to kiss his chest while he loosened the white baggy trousers, his palm pressing gently over stirring genitals beneath the sheer fabric. "Insatiable!"
"Pent up after hours of worry," Rachid corrected. "And now, courting relief to relax me lest I lie awake all night and stare at this ridiculous ceiling!"
In all the times Hassan had been in this room before, he had never thought to look at the ceiling. He did so now, following Rachid's line of sight, and bit off an oath. There were mirrors everywhere reflecting the pair of them perfectly. Out of sheer fascination he lay down, lifting Rachid's naked weight onto his chest and looking up. The slender, golden tanned body lay on him, beautiful, sinfully erotic, and he palmed the alluring buttocks. Rachid, face down on him, could not see the view, and began to undulate like deep ocean waves, pressing and rubbing against the cool friction of Hassan's clothes. The view he was missing was -- inspiring. Hassan thought as he acknowledged swimming senses.
"Wait -- wait," he panted, "let me undress before I have made a ruin of my clothes."
With a murmur of protest Rachid writhed away, his nimble fingers lifting shirt and lowering trousers until Hassan was bare from chest to mid-thigh. Then he lay down again and made a sigh of pleasure. "Better," he admitted. "All the hard heat of you." He cupped Hassan's hot face, kissing his mouth hard. "You sleep in my bed tonight, Captain. Instead of I in yours."
But Hassan knew better than that even while he was swept away with the surge of sinful rapture...
They slept in a prince's bed. Kabir was a prince, not Rachid; and Kabir was chained in a cellar on the clifftop. He had to be restrained as much for his own safety as that of the men who had schemed against him: if he made good his escape, he would be dead, and if there was a choice between living the debauched life of a pampered, flattered profligate -- albeit one in exile and confinement -- and being dog meat, Hassan was in no doubt as to which option kabir would choose.
Rachid came with a moan, shivering with release, and Hassan thrust up hard against him, seeking his own climax. He hugged the small, hard body to him, loving Rachid very much, for his courage and for needing this -- comfort and reassurance as much as relief from the day's cruel tensions. The smaller man smiled dreamily at him as they grew still and guiet, and Hassan kissed him. "I have just made love to a crowned head," he said wrily.
"You have loved Rachid, the first mate of the Griffin," Rachid sighed. "I am not a prince or a sheik, no matter the words preached over me today... Send for food and coffee, and bathe with me. Stay all night... I love you."
The feasting would continue throughout the night, but the new ruler of Zerindah would not be disturbed. That his captain remained with him would no doubt raise a few brows -- especially as Hassan had never been a friend of the old sultan's son; but neither of them worried. As the undisputed ruler of this kingdom, 'Kabir' could not be impeached.
The food was brought by Nubians, their eyes averted, schooled to tactful sightlessness within the apartments of their near-divine masters; at the door stood two men of the guard, naked scimitars in their hands, but there was no threat. Not tonight.
"There will be celebrating all over the kingdom," Rachid said, sipping at his scalding coffee.
But Hassan shook his head. "Most people have dreaded this day. Kabir was not loved as a Prince. As a ruler, he will be reviled." The blue eyes feasted unashamedly on Rachid as the smaller man lounged on a divan, his scarlet robe only loosely closed, the better part of him displayed. "There could be danger."
"Danger -- to me?" The mariner asked shrewdly. "If I am discovered to be an imposter --"
"No." Hassan put down his cup, reaching for his lover's hand. "If Kabir was hated before he got the crown on his
head, how much more will he be hated and feared now? There may be danger for you because you are not discovered as a fake. Kabir has many enemies even here in the palace."
"They will try to kill Kabir, and in doing so, assassinate Sinbad's poor mate," Rachid said softly. "I wish you had told me this before!"
"If I had told you, would you have agreed to be Kabir for us?"
"I... cannot say," Rachid said honestly. "IF I had had the sense of a child I would have run, that night when you caught me on the beach!"
Hassan squeezed the slender fingers he held. "And never come to know me, never shared my bed."
"Never come to love you," Rachid admitted. "Aye, mayhap the trade is an even one... Though what good it will do either of us if I am dead is beyond me!"
"Dead?" The notion sent a shiver through Hassan and he moved closer, pulling Rachid into a determined embrace. "I shall remain with you, never leave your side. I am, after all, the captain of your guard. At a word from you, it would be my bounden duty to guard your back night and day -- and it would be my head to disobey you!"
"Aye," Rachid muffled, somewhere in the vicinity of his captain's left ear. "Then consider yourself so ordered."
Hassan lifted the other's face in search of his mouth; all he could taste was coffee. "It is getting late. Come to bed?"
"My bed," Rachid said throatily. "And -- what of the servants, Hassan? They will see us together, bathing, sleeping."
"Servants in this palace know better than to say anything to anyone -- most of them have lost their wagging tongues already. And if it becomes public knowledge that you are bedding with me... Well, Kabir has preferred boys before his wives before now. I am not a boy... Forbidden fruit, eh? Let them think that you enjoy the subjugation of a man in your bed. That you derive a certain perverse delight from the surrender of a warrior, rather than a little lad, gelded and trained for pleasure."
Rachid pulled away, and his eyes were almost luminous in the room's soft light. "Hassan, it is not like that, with you, is it? If that is what I have been doing with you --"
"Lovesome idiot," Hassan chuckled, boxing Rachid's ears gently. "With you there is only joy... Come to bed, and let me show you again, since you seem to have forgotten! But let them think Kabir is up to his old ways again... Cheap thrills, at my expense, between silk sheets."
"Thrills?" Rachid made a disapproving face. "Aye, if that is what they must think. But I do not care for it, Hassan."
"Neither," Hassan admitted with a wry grin, "do I. But I get you, so what do I care for half-brained stories told for the amusement of bored courtiers?" He kissed the tip of Rachid's chiselled nose. "Now will you come to bed?"
"I... will come to bed," Rachid smiled, letting the scarlet robe be slipped from his shoulders and cast aside. "I am ill, as of this time, am I not?" He asked as he padded toward Kabir's plush boudoir. "His wives will not require me?"
"His wives would not require Kabir," Hassan said huskily as he watched Rachid sprawl out on the bed. "You? If they could know you, my sweetest love, if they could know you, I think they would die of longing." His blue eyes twinkled with mischief. "And we would let them pine away, wouldn't we?"
Rachid's eyes darkened by shades as he watched Hassan disrobe. "Aye... They have their own concerns to occupy them -- their children, harem business. They have no need of me."
No need of this luscious creature? Hassan thought, hiding a smile as he lay down beside the man whose life was in the palm of his hand. Allah, how I need you! Rachid's mouth opened beneath his, sweet and hot, and as their tongues began to make love with gentle care Hassan set the worry and fear from him.
Time to fret when the need arose; for now, there was a far more urgent need and his hands were filled with his lover's yielding body.
The news was everywhere by noon the next day: Kabir was unwell, his health suspect, his temper volcanic. Olimar, the physician, checked Rachid insofar as he was permitted to, but Rachid ran true to Kabir's form, and would not permit the doctor to actually touch him. Olimar knew only what Rachid told him... Stomach cramps, dizziness, fainting spells, tingling in the hands and feet, the desire to sleep.
The old man concocted a bewildering array of tinctures and medications, all of which Hassan disposed of by the simple expedient of pouring them down a drain. Rachid lounged in the plush apartments, growing bored and counting the days until he could legitimately sign his abdication and depart --
For Greece, to take the cures. The mariner was restless, Hassan saw, prowling the apartments like a caged cat. In the early morning he would sit on the window seat, chin cupped in his palms, gazing at the sea with an open longing. The Griffin was long, long gone now.
A week after the coronation, Hassan padded up behind him, barefoot and bare chested, his jaw still unshaven, and put both hands on the wide, bare shoulders. Rachid, as usual, had left their bed before the guard captain was even awake, and had not bothered to dress. "Be at peace," Hassan counselled. "Nothing will make time pass faster than it will."
"I know," Rachid sighed, "but I grow soft and indolent here. Look at my hands -- soft as a girl's!"
In fact, his hands were beautiful, soft and like velvet, few of their usual callouses remaining. Hassan kissed the palms. "Time to harden yourself later. For now, consider yourself at rest. Think of it as a shore leave."
"Some shore leave," Rachid said drily. "I know every inch of this room, have memorized every tile. Were it not for you, I should be mad by now. Can we not go out, just for a little?"
Hassan frowned. "Out? As far as the gardens, perhaps... We could say that Kabir is feeling a little better this morning."
"Please?" Rachid's face was alight, boyish, entreating, and there was no way Hassan could refuse him.
"Will we ride or walk?"
"Ride," Rachid said, eager to be moving. "Is there a horse in Kabir's stable that would suit an invalid?"
"A black mare called Midnight." Hassan smiled as Rachid pressed into an embrace, kissing his throat. "Hm, you'll have to shave or I shall be whisker burns from head to foot soon."
"Kiss me anyway," Rachid asked, wrinkling his nose, an expression of affection Hassan had come to crave.
They shaved each other with the lethal straight blade and sweet oil, and it was still very early when Hassan led his charge out of the room. Rachid was pantomiming frailty without a single scruple; he took short steps and leaned heavily on the captain's shoulder, his head hanging as if he had to keep his eyes on the ground or fall. The guardsmen stood aside, nodding greeting and farewell at Hassan as he went by, and they took a private passage down to the stable yard.
The lads brought out Midnight and Hassan's own horse, saddling them without delay, and then Hassan had to stifle an outraged chuckle as his mischievous lover turned to him for assistance to mount the mare. The green eyes glittered in fun as Hassan picked him up bodily, depositing him in the saddle.
"They will be telling stories of Kabir," Hassan whispered as he put the reins into Rachid's hands. "How he is so frail he must be lifted onto his horse, and so thin that I can lift him like a child."
"The stories are to our purpose," Rachid grinned. "Come, Hassan, let's get away from the palace. The gardens are vast enough for us to be alone in the sun."
Hassan winked up at him before swinging aboard his own animal and turning south out of the stable yard.
There was something about the early morning that was fragile, beautiful; dew still clung to the rose petals, the sun still hove on the shoulders of the hills in the east, and the ocean was as calm as a mill pond. Cedar groves had been planted as wind breaks between the palace and the sea, and as they rode into them it was as if they left behind the world of rich men and corruption.
Deer kept the lawns cropped and armies of slaves toiled over the flower gardens that surrounded the cenotaphs, great marble sculptures commmemorating rulers long dead. It was odd; although Rachid had been crowned as the figurehead of this island kingdom, he had never seen the gardens, and he listened in fascination as Hassan delivered a potted history of the royal household... Kabir was the first of his lineage to be a monstrosity in Prince's clothing, and Hassan was wont to blame his bad blood on his mother.
"Princess Fenzileh came here as a captive," he was saying as they slid down from the saddles to walk for a time, far from the palace now. "The fleet often raids along the shores of other lands. Slaves are cheaper to come by that way! Fenzileh was a slave, but she came to favour and was chosen, picked out from the rest by Kabir's father. Ibn Jemail could never resist her beauty; she had eyes like onyx and skin like alabaster, hair so lustrous and glossy it would serve as a mirror. He took her as his second wife."
"Second?" Rachid frowned. "Then how could Kabir come to be his heir? The sultan's heir must be the first son of his first wife -- unless your customs differ here."
"No, our customs are the same." Hassan's mouth drew tight. "Fenzileh had not been at court more than a year when Kabir was delivered. No one rejoiced more than Fatima, Ibn Jemail's first wife... but within another year Fatima was dead, and her son with her. Asad was three years old. He and his mother were said to have eaten seafood from unclean waters." He paused and his shoulders lifted in an eloquent shrug. "Maybe so; but there was talk. A cook lost his head, a fisherman was executed... But Fatima and her son were still dead, and Fenzileh and Kabir took their place. Oh, they were beautiful... I remember, when I was a boy, I would gaze at Kabir and think him the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. But I came to hate him. I watched him cut to pieces a silk merchant for stepping out before his horse one day; I saw him laugh while they drowned a fisher lad for looking him in the eye. I watched him rape a boy from Damascus along the road, for no other reason than the lad had skin like honey and a rump like... Like yours. He knelt as he saw the Prince ride toward him, made the kowtow as one does before Allah. You know what that looks like."
"An invitation to be mated," Rachid agreed ruefully. "I have long wondered where the custom began, and wonder anew each time I find myself in a Mosque or meeting place, and kowtow before Allah, knowing there are men behind me."
"Aye," Hassan smiled. "The boy from Damascus learned what others behind him might be dreaming that day; I learned to hate Kabir, if I had ever had any regard for him." He shrugged. "But there is no cause to concern ourselves over Kabir now. The ship will be here in the next few days, to take him far away. He is a phantom from the past, no more than that."
They had walked down an avenue of cedars and found themselves in a garden where roses were clustered about a marble sun dial. The horses put their heads down to graze as they were loosed, and it was Hassan's pleaure to sprawl beside hi lover and watch the clouds massing overhead.
"There is bad weather coming," Rachid said softly.
"Is there?" Hassan took a look at the sky and turned curious eyes on his lover. "How can you tell?"
Rachid dug him in the ribs with one sharp finger. "I am a mariner by trade, or has it slipped your mind already? A seaman spends his life studying the sky; he can read it as another man reads a book. Often it makes the difference between life and death. I remember the time --"
There were stories of far away places, creatures that defied the imagination, women whose beauty blinded the eye. Throughout the adventures, the figure of Sinbad loomed over all others, and Hassan gave honest thanks to Allah that so kind, so honourable a man had been on hand to carry Rachid from the wreck of the galley where he had slaved in irons. The thought of Rachid being treated so was painful, but Hassan said nothing... Rachid was tough, for all his looks and soft voice, for all his appreciation of gentle things and gentle loving.
The stories were told in a spellbinding, husky voice and Hassan hung on every word, not noticing the passage of time until he heard the Imam singing the noon angelus from the palace temple. Then Rachid fell silent and Hassan watched his lover turn away to pray. Mecca lay to the southeast -- a mariner would know that. There was no water at hand to wash, but Allah was understanding. Rachid knelt, forehead on his hands, the husky voice given over to old, old prayers.
In the temple, the prayers meant nothing to Hassan -- so many words mumbled by so many tongues that they were without feeling, without worth. Here, alone among the roses, the prayers were somehow timeless, and he joined Rachid, for the first time in years appreciating what he was saying. Rachid prayed five times a day; Hassan often forgot and shrugged his apologies to Allah without a qualm. Sinbad had been a true believer, so the mate of the Griffin had said; aboard his ship, a bell called the men to prayer and the navigator would locate Mecca no matter where the Griffin was.
Prayers dispensed with, Rachid straightened, stretching. His mouth twitched in a smile as he glanced at Hassan. "I think you are rusty at this, my love. The words came uneasily to your lips."
"I have had little time for prayers," Hassan admitted. "As a boy I would pray as fervently as anyone, but later... It is hard to love God when your body is persecuted."
The smile was gone from Rachid's face and he held out his arms, hoping Hassan would accept them, and not disappointed. "I know. I lost my faith too, when I toiled in irons waiting and waiting for salvation and believing it would never come. Then -- sails on the horizon, and a battle. I was weak and ill, afraid that I would be left to drown. Sinbad saw that I was alive; he took me out of the wreck and watched me grow strong."
"Did..." Hassan checked himself and reworded what he ha to ask. "did you not love him, for his care and kindness, if nothing else?"
"Aye, I loved him," Rachid said quietly, "and still do-- but not in the way I love you. I love my brothers and sisters, and the dog I had as a lad in Algiers, and the girl I lived with in Charak... There are many kinds of love, Hassan. What I feel for you is a new thing to my heart. I have never felt it before." He paused, and Hassan watched him blush attractively about the cheekbones. "I am afraid my heart will never warm with this feeling again... You are my last love." He looked up then, and Hassan saw the brightness in the green eyes. The tears did not spill. "I wish you were my first."
"It is of no matter," Hassan smiled. "You are my first and last love, and that is more than enough for me."
There was a blink of startlement, and Rachid said, "you -- are serious? But what of your family line?" The slim shoulders shrugged. "You may have my body, anywhere, anytime, but I can give you no sons. You cannot wed me."
"That is a concern for the future," Hassan said gruffly. "The distant future. My father was silver bearded and wrinkled as old leather before he returned to the family fold and sired his brats. How say you, Rachid? In thirty years, would you free me to bed with a girl, for the sake of begetting a few sons?"
Rachid's face lit with a smile of pure delight. "I would. If you desire child kin, I would free you to bed with a wife of your choosing whenever you wish. I am not jealous of your love; you have enough to spare a little elsewhere."
"Save that I would be wanting you, and according the poor girl little attenion," Hassan said ruefully. "Kiss me, then we must get back to the palace. And remember -- you are an invalid! Drag your feet in exhaustion on the way back."
It was difficult to act the part of one as infirm as Kabir was supposed to be, for Rachid was in high spirits. They ate lunch by the window, the food balanced on platters on their knees, and then Hassan allowed himself to be seduced into the pools which adjoined the apartment, and was possessed in the warm, shallow water, before shepherding his lover back to the boudoir and possessing him in return.
They lay still at last, drowsing through the sultry, too-warm afternoon while thunderheads billowed up, blackening the sky beyond the window. Rachid was asleep, small and hard, a sweet armful on Hassan's chest, moist breaths tickling him. And when the charade is over, Hassan thought, on the verge of sleep himself, when the charade is over we shall disappear for a year -- Greece, or the islands of the east waters, until it is safe to return here... And I return with you; not a man who must be kept in the shadows, in secret, but the mate of my soul as well as my body, and no secret made of it!
As he drifted into sleep, thunder began to rumble about the hills and the sky out over the sea grew black.
The wind had battered at the palace for two days and the drapes at the window did little to keep out the unseasonably chill wind. The front of bad weather came in off the great ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and Hassan had never seen a blow like it; few reached this far into the gentle waters of the land-locked sea. It was exhilerating to watch one storm after another come raging in across the islands, and Rachid was full of stories that made Hassan's hair prickle. Tales of ships hung on reefs, of the song of windloved sea, calling the unwary to their deaths as even sirens never did.
The storms reminded Rachid of the life that had once been his, and he gloried in them, revelling in the crash of thunder and the black sky of midday, while the ocean thrashed before the gale and whitecaps fluttered as far as the horizon.
At night there was not a star to be seen and the stories were different; fog, solitude, ships adrift, becalmed. The thunder rumbled ominously, sometimes close at hand, sometimes many miles away, and it was cold. Hassan did not care for the oddness of the weather; his spine was tense, his nerves ill at ease, as if the portents of evil were all about him. Rachid would have none of it, for he had lived with the best and worst the weather had to offer for most of his life; but Hassan was not at peace and did not pretend to be. Rachid understood, called his lover a 'landlubber', and coddled him when the storms cost them sleep; Hassan was at first outraged by the coddling but grew to like it and court more, until Rachid was laughing.
For the third night, the wind was on the rise and shipping held to port. Rain lashed down out of the north- west, and the drapes whipped at the windows like sails. A pile of rugs lay on the bed, and Hassan was still cold. Rachid lay slightly beneath him, soaking up his body heat, while his back was chilly and his feet like ice. Hassan grumbled to himself, tugging at the rugs, wondering how he could be in the bed of a prince and still be uncomfortable. He wriggled over, yanking Rachid's smaller frame over on top of him. "Your turn to warm me," he muttered, knowing that he was talking to himself.
Rachid did no more than mumble a curse, wriggle back to comfort and sink into his dreams. Hassan smiled wryly into the long, soft hair. "You could sleep on a wall, couldn't you? Must come from being used to the roll of a ship!" He closed his eyes, seeking sleep and knowing he would not find it. It was still little after midnight, and he had not even yawned. He was too restless, waiting for the next flicker of lightning, the next roll of thunder. Rachid could sleep right through it.
Then again, Rachid was exhausted. Hassan chuckled, lavishing congratulations on himself for his efforts. He could still taste the last, faint traces of Rachid, a rich, salty tank, and still feel the indescribable pleasure as he plundered the pliant, eager body. Rachid had given it his all; small wonder that he was deeply asleep.
Lightning forked in the north, lighting the world in hard, electric blue, and he cursed the weather. Better the hot, dry nights of the desert than this strange, inclement climate. He counted off the seconds; the storm was only a matter of miles away, and coming closer.
The knocking at the door was almost lost in the next roll of thunder, and Hassan struggled to sit up beneath Rachid's weight as he became aware of the disturbance. A guard stood at the door of Kabir's boudoir, his eyes discreetly averted, his right hand raised in salute.
"Your pardon, Captain, but there is a matter for your attention. General Hussein is without --"
"Now?" Hassan demanded. "Do you know no better than to disturb me here?"
The guard's throat twitched, betraying his swallow. He could lose his head as easily as not, and he knew it. He stole a glance at the bed, looking quickly away again. Kabir was on his face, stirring awake, dopy and lethargic -- too much of the hashish, the guardsman assumed. That was quite in keeping, as was the fact that the monarch shared his bed with a man. The stories of Hassan's submission were all over the palace.
"My apologies, Captain, but General Hussein said there is a matter of the utmost urgency. The security of the whole kingdom is at risk, I believe."
"It had better be," Hassan muttered, levering his length out of bed and reaching for a robe. "Out with you, man, and send in the General."
Rachid was awake as the guardsman left, and blinked up at his lover in the light of a lamp tended by Hassan's long fingers. "What is amiss? Was someone here?"
"A guard, to tell us Hussein is here," Hassan told him. "Be still and let me speak with the old man. It must be of the greatest importance for him to go to these lengths."
"But --" Rachid began.
A kiss silenced him. "Hush, and... Get dressed," Hassan said, a hoarse whisper. "I have a bad feeling about my bones."
With that, Hassan left the boudoir, fastening the robe and pulling his fingers through his hair; General Hussein was waiting for him, and even in the lamplight he could see the look of tension and fatigue on the old man's face. "Hussein, what has got you out of a warm bed on this inclement eve?"
Hussein gave it to him in one brief word. "Kabir." He sank to sit on a carved chair, hands clenched, knuckled bone white. "The ship put out of port this night, Hassan... It swamped off the heads and went down. There were few survivors -- the wreck was washed in on the rocks and many were battered. We... We searched everywhere, and we found no body." He paused, meeting Hassan's eyes levelly. "Kabir is probably dead, and the body swept out to sea --"
"No." The voice was Rachid's, and both men turned to see the mariner behind them. "The tide runs only in one direction," Rachid said quietly. "If the wreck was washed onto the rocks, everything and everyone would be washed with it. There is no way that the wreck could be washed up, and Kabir washed out to sea."
"Yet we found no body," Hussein repeated.
"It could be trapped in the wreck," Rachid suggested.
But the general shook his head. "The whole ship broke up; she hit a submerged boulder, it tore a great hole in her bow and she swamped in moments. There are not two timbers left hanging together. They pulled every body out of the water... Every body they could find."
The three men were silent for a time, and then Rachid found his voice. "Then it is safe to assume... Kabir is alive. Maybe the worse for wear, but alive --"
"And at liberty," Hassan finished, sitting down on the foot of a divan to study Rachid's face in the lamplight. "He will not come back here -- after he was made away with he will know there is much danger here for him."
"Then, where?" Rachid asked, sitting beside him and wishing they were alone so that Hassan might offer the warmth of his arms. "Where would he go?"
"Lion Rock," Hussein guessed. "Ibrahim is there."
"Lion Rock?" Rachid echoed. "And who is Ibrahim?"
"Lion Rock is a fortress," Hassan said slowly, "built many centuries ago to guard against the sea raiders, in the days when we were a poor kingdom and prey to all and sundry. It is still maintained as a fortress, although not strongly manned. In command of the garrison there is Ibrahim, Kabir's cousin. His blood brother. They roamed as mates when they were lads, killing and maiming for the fun of it; Ibrahim is as twisted as a corkscrew, I had no more regard for him than for Kabir. Only the royal blood in his veins kept him from the headsman's block. Yes, Kabir would make for Lion Rock, no doubt about it. And if Ibrahim sees his kinsman's face he would bring the garrison to war... An army, ready made, at Kabir's back."
Again, silence, and then Hussein cleared his throat. "There may be one chance. If Kabir was battered against the rocks -- as were all the seamen -- he will be less than fighting fit, and it is a good distance to Lion Rock. If we move now, we may head him off before he gets there, and deal with him."
"Kill him," Rachid whispered.
"Aye," Hassan said darkly. "Kill him, before he makes an end of all of us, and rides roughshod over this whole kingdom." He stirred. "Wait for us, Hussein, we will be with you in a few moments."
"Both of you?" Hussein sounded uncertain. "Do you not think it would be safer if Rachid stayed here?"
"Stayed here -- waiting for news, unknowing if you are dead or alive, and expecting at every turn to hear the army clatter in the courtyard, come to take my head from me?" Rachid demanded. "Better to be out. If we must run like thieves in the night we would at least have a head start on them!"
"Hussein made noises of reluctant agreement and left them, and as the door closed behind the old man Hassan turned to take his lover in a punishing grip. "Allah, what have I brought you to?" He offered his lips, and Rachid took them. "Ah, love, it was not meant to be like this. It should have been so simple. Now, there will be blood."
"So long as it is not ours," Rachid said throatily. "Oh, Hassan, stop fretting yourself. I am where I choose to be. I am clad in silks, tight in your arms, and my body can still remember you, moving within it. So there will be fighting. I am no stranger to fighting! How many times have you counted my scars, kissed them and lamented over them?"
"Aye," Hassan said readily. "You are right, and I -- a scared lover. Now, answer me this. You must get out of the palace, and not be seen to leave. Have you a magic carpet, or a cloak of invisibility?" Rachid shook his head. "A magic lamp, a friendly genie?" Another shake of the mariner's head, and a chip-toothed grin. "Then, what, you lovesome imp?"
"A plan," Rachid told him. "The balcony here is hung with vines; an old woman with one leg would be able to climb down to the courtyard, blindfold. I will meet you at the fountain by the stable yard; bring a horse for me. No one will see me -- I can be like a cat when I choose."
"Fair enough." Hassan caught his head to kiss him, and released him. "Be quick, then. With luck you can be back in your sick bed by dawn... If not, better to wait the whole day out, and return tomorrow night. Daylight is too dangerous." He gave the small, perfect buttocks a swat to get Rachid moving.
Thunder was still rumbling but it was receding, the storm front heading out to sea again... It had done its damage. Hassan dressed quickly, demanding of Allah why this should happen -- but the answer was at once forhtocming Kabir had to die -- and not at the hand of God, via the medium of the storm; he had to die by the hand of man, answer for his crimes, once and for all. So be it , Hassan thought, buckling on his baldric and checking his weapons reflexively. But, let me be the one to strike the blow!
For the first time in weeks, Rachid felt alive as he climbed down the vines into the well of darkness below the prince's rooms. The air was cool and damp and he hand buckled on a sword. This was life as he knew it, not the cloistered, silk-draped confines of a palace. How many men spent most of their lives fantasizing about being a price? Perhaps, if they knew at first hand how coddled and tedious a prince's life was, they would fantasize about other things!
It took some moments for Hassan and the general to have horses saddled. Rachid waited in the concealment of potted trees until the animals clattered out of the stable yards, only then moving out into the open. Hassan tossed the reins of a spirited young racehorse to him.
"I must be away," Hussein said, his words almost lost in the wind. "There are men who would fight with us, if it is necessary, but I pray it will not be. If you make good speed,you must surely intercept Kabir on the trail."
The wind whipped at Hassan's cloak as he brought his horse about. "Send word to Faisal when you have mustered such men as we may command. I will send a messenger when there is news. Come, Rachid, there is no time to tarry!"
They left the palace grounds by the old gate on the cliff head; its castellated walls gazed out over a stormy sea, its guards were dicing over their coffee and did not notice the horsemen who stole by under cover of darkness and wind. Then Hassan and Rachid were on the trail that wound up into the hills and riding fast. Rachid glanced back over his shoulder, trying to guess the distance back to the heads, where the ship had struck. A league at least. If Kabir was uninjured and angry, he might make a decent time -- Hassan was right; they must make haste.
The hills were craggy, strewn with boulders, and the trail beneath the horses' hooves was treacherous. As they rose above the palace they cut speed, sometimes walking the animals over the worst of the ground. The overcast broke as they crested the highest hill slope and the blue wash of starlight picked out the lie of the land.
There, perhaps two miles ahead, was the fortress of Lion Rock. Hassan drew rein in the lee of a stand of cyprus. "Kabir will come this way, it is the quickest. And he cannot have passed this point already unless there are wings on his heels -- and there were not, at last I saw him!"
"So we wait here," Rachid concluded, sliding down from the saddle and looping the reins over his arm. "With luck the rain will hold off."
"What?" Hassan teased, a mariner like yourself, worried about a few spots of rain in the night?"
"Worried for you, you fair skinned lily," Rachid snorted. "Yet the wind is too fresh for comfort and I am lightly clad." He ducked into the cover of the gnarled, stunted cyprus trees. "We can only wait now." As Hassan joined him in the scant shelter provided by the trees, the mariner's mind turned to the practicalities. "How many men can Hussein hope to raise?"
"Not enough," Hassan said grimly, "if Kabir gets through to Ibrahim, and Ibrahim's garrison secures the palace guard."
"So Kabir must die," Rachid said softly. "Not before time, from what you have told me. We must dispose of the body, also, lest a patrol find it."
"Faisal will attend to that, we need only conceal it," Hassan said, distaste plain in his voice. "They will take it back to the wreck, make it appear that he is just one more dead seaman, whose face has been damaged beyond recognition." In the darkness he reached out to touch Rachid's face, feathery caresses charting the planes and angles of it. "This face, which on you is so dear to me, and on him so cruel and cold."
"He has earned his death," Rachid said darkly. "Few will mourn him, I think. Fewer still will miss him." He backed up hard against Hassan for warmth. "If Kabir is injured, it may be some time before he comes this far."
Hassan grunted in agreement. "But Kabir has the luck of a hundred devils. If even one man got out of that wreck alive and whole, it would be him. The devil looks after his own... How long till dawn, do you think?"
Rachid studied th sky with the practised eye of a master mariner. "Three hours, a little longer. Dawn will be late and dim with this overcast. More storms are on the way."
"Then seat yourself and rest," Hassan scolded. "You are like a hound who has seen the hares and cannot wait to slip his leash. Are you so eager to see your sword blooded?"
"Eager to have this task done with," Rachid corrected, "and the danger set into the past." All the same, he sank to sit on a boulder beneath Hassan's cyprus. "And I am cold."
The captain of the guard turned to look at his mate in the near total darkness. "Soft living," he observed teasingly, "has made you a creature of comfort and leisure." Rachid punched his arm in retribution, and they laughed. "Shall I cuddle you for warmth?" The mariner loosed a snort of derision that put an end to Hassan's teasing. "All right. Shall I cuddle you for pleasure?"
"For warmth," Rachid chuckled, "lest I sit here and freeze! Kabir's clothes were not designed for this kind of work... Would that I had my own garments. Leather and brocade."
Hassan's cloak swept about the slim, bony shoulders and the heavy fabric held out the chill wind; beneath it, shared body heat warmed the air until they were comfortable. Rain spattered down, never enough to empty the clouds and clear the overcast.
It was going to be a long vigil.
The first faint tendrils of dawn were streaming out of the east when Hassan stirred awake to the sharp jab of fingers at his ribs. They had taken it in turns to doze fitfully out of sheer boredom, and Rachid had been on watch for only a few minutes.
"Wha --?" Hassan lifted his head from Rachid's shoulder, rubbing his knuckles over his eyes.
"Shh -- listen!"
The rattle of pebbles on boulders. Slipping shale. How far away? "A man on foot," Hassan whispered. "It need no be Kabir."
"Who else would be walking this trail, at exactly this hour on a night as forsaken as this?" Rachid drew his sword, stepping about the cyprus until he could see back up the trail. "We could use the moon, but this overcast is worse than a blanket... There. Do you see him?"
Hassan narrowed his eyes, following the line of Rachid's pointing arm. A figure was stumbling on the rocky trail, clumsy and yet stubbornly determined. Small, slight, the clothes wet, clinging to his body. "Kabir," he said soundlessly. "The devil looks after his own."
"Aye, so it would seem," Rachid agreed. He lifted the scimitar and tested the blade with the edge of his thumb; it was ironic. The sword belonged to Kabir, and he would probably die by it.
But Hassan's hand on the mariner's shoulder held him back. "No. Let me do this."
"He has been your associate since boyhood," Rachid hissed, "it is better that I kill him -- I who barely know him. To kill a stranger is easier."
"And there is no pride in such a killing," Hassan argued as the bedraggled figure of Kabir approached, unaware of the two men who plotted his death. "Where is the honour in killing a man you barely know?" It was a warrior's reasoning, and he knew Rachid would not dispute it.
The smaller man shrugged in answer and stepped aside. "But take care; if the devil looks after his own, he will not have deserted this one yet!"
Nor had he. As Kabir drew nearer, Hassan saw that he was armed; he carried a seaman's blade at his belt, short and stout, and a dirk -- both taken from the bodies of men dead in the wreck. "They should have chained you," Hassan said softly as the erstwhile prince came into hearing range. "Chains would have taken you to the bottom of the sea where the fishes would have dined well on your bones."
The bedraggled head lifted and a chance shred of starlight glittered in eyes which Hassan knew were as green as Rachid's. Kabir was fatigued, cold, but uninjured; and he was furious.
"Hassan -- I should have known," he spat. "You, with the smooth, lying tongue and the silken ways, you who cannot bear to see a man pay for his wrongs in the way long intended." He spat on the ground in scorn. "Soft as a woman, weak as a girl child, what do you know of the ways of state?"
"I loved your father, as we all did," Hassan said mildly. "Ibn Jemail would call on Allah to damn you, if he was able... Where are you headed, Kabir?"
"The fortress," Kabir growled, "as well you know. If luck will go with me a few moments more I will have Ibrahim muster the garrison and your associates will be minus their heads."
Hassan shook his head. "If you go to Lion Rock, you go through me," he said blandly. "As well you know. The time for dealing has passed you by, Kabir. The time of your death is upon you. Have you made your peace?"
In one smooth movement, the sword filled Kabir's right hand, and the dirk filled his left. He was operating on pure animal fury now, and Hassan did not underestimate him. For all his slight stature, he was strong; Hassan's weeks with Rachid had taught him that a man's boyish physique did not mean that he was weak, or lacking in courage. And what the fatigue had sapped from Kabir, the fury put back.
In the shadows beneath the cyprus trees, Rachid watched the combatants with a kind of horrified fascination. It was much like watching himself -- a mirror version of Rachid seemingly intent on Hassan's demise... And Kabir fought well. Anger lent him a speed that was nearly absurd, and he drew first blood, a long cut on Hassan's right arm; Rachid's heart leapt into his mouth as he tried to read his lover's movements -- how deep was the cut? How much damage had been done?
Little enough. Hassan swore lividly, leaping back out of harm's way, and Kabir snickered, counting his victories one at a time. "First blood, Hassan."
"Aye, but it is last blood that wins the day," Hassan said in a voice that sounded like gravelling.
"Then come, kill me," Kabir invited, courting disaster as if it were a beautiful object of desire.
I shall, Hassan thought. Only wait. Paradise comes soon enough. Paradise -- for this one? His teeth bared in a predatory smile as the battle joined again, sword steel ringing in the night. No, there would be no Paradise for Kabir, not if there was any justice. Kabir would burn, Allah would see to that, Hassan was confident. And I am his tool, he thought grimly, dodging the prince's twin blades.
Kabir drew second blood also, a scratch on Hassan's neck that stung and bled wetly, but again it was an inconsequential wound and Hassan ignored it.
Beneath the trees, Rachid watched, his lip caught between his teeth until it was bitten through. It was like some scene from a nightmare and he wished fervently that Hassan's stubborn honour had let him challenge the prince. It would not have been a grudge match, then, and Rachid, being smaller than Hassan, was naturally that much quicker on his feet... Small stature had its benefits on occasion.
And then suddenly it was over. Only the smallest cry passed Kabir's lips, and it was one of shock and astonishment rather than pain, as if, in his arrogance, he had never considered the possibility that he could be vanquished. He pitched forward into the shale and mud and lay almost still, his muscles still aquiver with the last vestiges of life.
On the blade of Hassan's sword, the blood looked black. Rachid shivered, stepping out from his shadows at last and coming to peer at the wounds Hassan had received. There was just enough of the gathering dawn for him to be able to see them, and although they were not deep he knew that Hassan would be in some pain.
"It is too late to return to the palace," he said softly. "Daylight will be upon us in moments. We must conceal the body at once, and find ourselves a safe place. How will you get word to Faisal?"
Hassan cleaned his sword on the hem of his cloak and slid it away. "I will ride for home and send Yussef to the merchant; Faisal will be waiting for news. Come, help me; we must move the body now; Lion Rock is not far from here, and in daylight we will be seen."
Kabir was surprisingly heavy in death and they carried him between them, settling him in the crook of a lightning- rent tree and piling shale about him until he was concealed. Dawn was a rosy flush by that time, and when Hassan looked up he found he could see Rachid's face clearly. It was lined with strain, and he extended one hand to cup a stubbled cheek.
"Don't fret; all is taken care of... I wish I could take you back to my home to bathe adn eat, but it is too dangerous. There is a shepherd's cottage in the hills not half a mile from here, you'll see it from the next rise. Go there and wait for me; as soon as I have sent word to Faisal I shall fetch clothes and food, and we will see out this bitter day together."
"They will miss us at the palace," Rachid warned.
But Hassan had even that angle covered. "By this time, Hussein will be back there; he has gained entry to Kabir's apartments on state business once already, so the guardsmen will pass him inside again. On his way out he will give them fair warning -- that you be left undisturbed until further notice." He smiled thinly. "When we have darkness we will return the way we came, I through the eastern portico, you by the vine below your window. Relax, be at peace. All will be well."
At last Rachid smiled. "It is unwise to believe so readily, but I believe you," he said, hugging his arms about his chest in the chill of early morning as Hassan brought the horses from their tethers, on the other side of the stand of cyprus. "Be quick, Hassan."
In answer, Hassan dropped a wet kiss on Rachid's waiting mouth. "As quick as I can be. Hurry now, before the guards on the walls of the fortress see you go."
The two horses split up at once, Rachid heading off over the shoulder of the steep hill to scout out the shepherd's hut, and Hassan riding fast for home. He had spoken to Rachid of their standby plan, a scheme to be used in the darkest of hours, and he hoped to Allah that Hussein, Faisal and the others would adhere to plans laid weeks before and not change the game out of hand.
The shepherd's cottage was tiny, piled deep with straw, and it had not been used in months. Rachid's sensitive nose could only barely detect the odor of sheep. He took the horse inside, banking the straw up where it became trampled, and then buried himself in the piles of dried grasses for warmth. Beyond the door, the sky grew steadily lighter, and he saw the first patch of blue as the ominous storm clouds scattered at last. He marked the time by the angle of the sun, calculating to within a scant few minutes, as a master mariner would...
Hassan was long gone. Noon approached and hunger gnawed at his innards, echoing the worming sensations of fretting; twice he heard hooves on the trail that bisected the paddocks in which stood the cottage, but first a merchant and then a donkey boy rode idly by, on their way to market.
The day warmed, the wind swinging southerly and losing the sharp, cutting edge it had carried for days, and Rachid sat at the door in a patch of grudging sun, keeping watch until he recognised the cloaked figure on the big strawberry roan warhorse. Hassan reined back, standing in the stirrups to gaze about every compass point, ensuring that he was unseen before approaching the white plastered hut. He slid to the ground in the lee of it and led the horse inside, out of sight, catching Rachid as the smaller man sought his embrace in greeting.
"All is well?" Rachid asked huskily, reading Hassan's face as if it were a book, and knowing the answer without needing to hear it.
"Aye," Hassan said guardedly. "Faisal's lads will move the body after dark tonight; Hussein's men, such as would fight with us, were stood to, but there will be no need for them now. There is word at the palace that you are gravely ill, that you are even on the point of death and, in your honour, prefer to die in solitude." The blue eyes twinkled. "How do you feel, my love? For one so close to death, you look remarkably healthy."
"Hungry," Rachid retorted. "Have you brought food?"
"Food, coffee, and fresh clothes," Hassan told him, "but I would petition for a kiss first. Oblige me?"
Rachid caught his head, both hands knotting into the short cropped, dark hair to pull it down to his mouth. "I am in sore need of shaving," he apologised, "where as you have shown your face the blade, while you were at home."
"I brought oil and a razor with me," Hassan whispered against Rachid's soft open mouth. "I thought, perhaps..." The silky tongue in his mouth silenced him for a long time.
"Perhaps...?" Rachid prompted, later.
"I thought perhaps you might let me attend to your face, so as to love in comfort this afternoon. I have never revelled in you in the sun, and the afternoon will be long, and --"
"We need no such excuses as whiling away time," Rachid said sternly. "Feed me, then give me the razor." He smiled. "I have coupled in the sun once or twice before. We should make the most of this opportunity -- we are unlikely to be so free again for some time."
They ate together, mutton, black bread, dates and cheese, and then Hassan scolded and cajoled for the right to slide the lethal razor over his lover's smooth face. Rachid threw up his hands and surrendered to the pampering, enjoying the caress of oily fingers and the great care with which Hassan undertook the simple chore.
The captain's cloak spread out over the straw, making a soft bed, and soon Rachid found himself pressed into it while Hassan frowned down into his face, the blue eyes troubled and dark. "What is it?" He whispered. "Love, tell me."
"Kabir," Hassan admitted, burying his face in the warm, brown chest and soaking up his lover's body heat. "He died on my sword, I saw his face... Allah. It was like seeing you die. I cannot put it from me."
"Hush," Rachid crooned into the silky hair by his cheek. "It is no more than an illusion, and never was. I am a brat from the harbours of Algiers who stowed away as a lad, to go to sea against my father's wishes, and instead of being raped and murdered was befriended by my Captain, and taught to read... The crew became my family; I was happy with them untilthe ship was sunk by raiders and I found myself in irons. Bad times, Hassan, until we saw sails before the wind, and Sinbad carried me out of that wreck onto the Griffin. I have travelled further than you can imagine, seen things you would not believe, as Sinbad's mate... And now I am your own mate." The subtle nuance in the word brought Hassan's head up, and the blue eyes had cleared. Rachid smiled. "I am not Kabir, nor could I ever be mistaken for him... Love me, and be sure."
Hassan mirrored the smile. "I am sure," he said throatily, "but I will love you anyway, for the joy of it." He stooped to kiss each rosy brown nipple, bestowing an encouraging lick to each. "We may be able to escape from the prison of the palace before long. Hussein has spread word that you have worsened in your health, and will not live more than a few weeks more without the attention of a healer. Olimar is fuming and cursing you for rejecting the attentions of so eminent a physician, but no one is surprised, for Kabir would have acted this way." He lifted his head from its pillow on Rachid's shoulder, looking down into dark, dreamy green. "In a few days or a week, I will make arrangements for a ship. We will sail for Greece with a small retinue, chosen by Hussein and Faisal."
"And a few days out from port, word will be sent back by heliograph that Kabir has perished, and been buried at sea." Rachid sighed, stretching under the caresses that were being lavished on him by the big, square, capable hands he loved. "And we will be free." He pried open one eye. "I was to be paid in gold -- enough to buy a ship, remember."
The blue eyes laughed at the reminder. "Mercenary," Hassan accused, laughing.
"I have been that in my time too," Rachid grinned. "And done honourable work in the pay of others -- it is not that one soldiers for pay, it is where and why." He broke off with a gasp as Hassan began to stroke between his legs. "Will -- I -- be -- paid?" Speaking was difficult with clenched teeth.
Hassan administered an admonitary nip with sharp teeth at Rachid's shoulder. "Of course you will. You have done more for this kingdom than you will ever know. There will be gold enough to buy a ship and hire a crew in any port from Charak to the Pillars... Though I had hoped you would come home with me."
The green eyes were glassy with desire now, and Rachid did not even hear the murmur. Hassan's hand was weaving magic at his groin and he arched up to rub himself against the warmth of the open palm. Hassan smiled, watching his lover move for a time, letting him use his hand; lean and brown and graceful, was Rachid, infinitely desirable, and Hassan felt the sudden heatof his own lust. He closed his hand about Rachid's cock, drawing a hissed oath from him. The slender hips bucked into his fist and Rachid tossed his head. "Please -- please --"
Growing dizzy with wanting, Hassan did not seek to tease, but leaned his weight on Rachid's belly to hold him down while he bent to swallow the aching length of his cock. Heat and musk filled his throat as he petted and cherished, at last beginning to suck hard, bobbing his head, as Rachid's hands clenched on his shoulders. The sweet, hard body bucked once, beyond control, and stiffened, and Rachid whispered a love curse as he came, pouring his salt-sweet essences into his lover's hungry mouth.
Hassan licked him dry, collecting every satiated moan as an accolade until Rachid was still and his panting had eased; the green eyes were open again, heavy, dark, and the little mariner was in no doubt as to his lover's intent. The long, slim legs spread, knees lifting, and Hassan crooked them over his shoulders, kneeling between them. Pre-ejaculate pulsed from him and he used it to make them both slick and ready; Rachid was open before he slid gentle fingers into him, squirming with a kind of delight that had always made Hassan wonder, until he had discovered it for himself, with this man... To feel Rachid moving within him was a joy like no other; to sheath himself in his lover's pliant body was delight beyond bearing.
They both cried out as Hassan made them one, and the captain of the Zerindah guard felt Rachid's growing hardness at his belly. "Wanton -- little -- creature," he panted before smothering his lover with a consuming kiss. Rachid was writhing beneath him, driving them both toward climax, and Hassan held still and let him work until frustrated hands clenched on his arms and Rachid moaned into the kiss.
Release swept through them both like a firestorm as Hassan took up the work, and then they collapsed in a sticky, tight embrace, asleep without a word in moments.
It was Hassan who woke first, cramped beneath his lover's not inconsiderable weight, and he woke Rachid with a kiss, his tongue deep in one soft-cushioned ear. The mariner stirred without a start, stretching and wriggling, a yawn gusting across Hassan's shoulder. Blue eyes and green met and held, sober, level, wanting and needing truth now that it was almost over. Hassan framed the question again, now that Rachid could hear it.
"I had hoped you would come home with me," he said throatily. "Will you?"
For some time Rachid did not answer. "I am a mariner by trade," he said carefully, "and an adventureer by nature... What would I do on dry land?"
"Be with me," Hassan suggested.
Rachid smiled. "Aye, and that would be enough for a long time, but... I am a man, my love. Born to roam. I will grow restless, my feet will itch, I will stand gazing at the sea and dreaming of lands far away."
"I know," Hassan said honestly. "I have had this in mind since I knew I wanted you forever. You will be paid -- this was promised, and we stand by our words. I had not considered that you would be leaving me so soon."
"Leaving you?" Rachid blinked in astonishment. "Wherever did you get that odd notion?"
"You will purchase a ship and be gone," Hassan shrugged, and eloquent wriggle of shoulders on straw-filled cloak.
"Aye, but not gone far or for good," Rachid argued. "If I purchase a ship it will be to run a cargo from Zerindah to Alexandria, another from Alexandria to Rome, and a third from Rome to Zerindah. The land locked sea is not so wide or deep, Hassan, I would be gone long enough to appease my seaman's heart, and then be home." He kissed the smooth, white chest. "Try to see the worly from my eyrie for a moment... What am I? What do I have? What will I ever have? If I remain with you, I will have the price of a ship, my payment for the service I have done here. But I would spend it quickly, and then what?" The green eyes sparkled with reluctant humour. "You know what they call a man, or boy, who is kept as a pet by a rich, adoring master."
Hassan cuffed his hear. "You, a catamite? Never. I cannot even imagine that!"
"You would come to imagine it soon enough," Rachid laughed, "a year or so from now, when, at market a well meaning trader sells you pretty silks intended as a gift and innocently asks after your health and that of your catamite. Oh, for a lad born to the life, there would be no shamein it. But for me..." He kissed Hassan's mouth deeply. "I am your lover, not your whore. There is a world of difference."
"A world of difference I would never forget," Hassan said softly, craving for the simple life he could feel slipping fast through his fingers. The house of his forefathers, comfort and security, peace, the cool chambers ringing with the sounds of Rachid's husky laughter, his bed silks warmed by the smooth, brown body he knew he could no longer live without --
"You would remember, I know," Rachid sighed, "but others would forget too soon, and my honour would be gone like so much smoke upon the breeze. But consider this: I purchase a ship and accept such commissions as will line my pockets; I pay my way beneath your roof, invest in your enterprises -- as you would be welcome to invest in mine. Sometimes I will laze the winter away with you, and let my ship ply for me with a sailing master I trust at her tiller; other times you may glory in the summer with me, lazing from island to island, inconsequential cargoes, and much loving where the anchorages are safe and we are alone and at peace." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "To me, it would be Paradise."
Hassan lay back on the cloak, seriously considering the proposition. Winters in the home of his ancestors, with Rachid drowsing away the foul weather and a sailing master in charge of the vessel; summers spent in idle pursuit, little adventures and all the loving they could desire, among the island chains in the north and east. Paradise? He smiled, tugging Rachid's red-brown hair until he returned to the present. "If you get me drowned and fed to the fishes, I will never forgive myself for heeding you in this folly," he said sternly.
"Folly?" Rachid demanded, but could see that Hassan was not mocking but playing. He smothered the sweet mockery with a kiss. "There, what say you to that?"
"What would you have me say?" Hassan whispered, reaching up to trace his lover's features. "That you are the most beautiful djin these realms have ever known, that I lost my heart to you the moment I saw you, that I love you more than life and would follow you anywhere, no matter how foolish the folly?"
"Would you?" Rachid asked huskily, and there was a glitter in his eyes that threatened to spill.
"Aye." Hassan nodded. "I have killed for you, and would die for you. After that, what is a voyage or three?"
Rachid fell onto him, hugging him tightly, little lick- kisses tickling his neck. "I did not dare hope that you would let me be myself, while loving me." He lifted his head, his expression sheepish. "I felt sure you would want to tie me to home and hearth, and be damned to my honour."
The words earned him another cuff. "The maggots have been at your brain. I fell in love with an adventurer who tells me stories I cannot believe of magic and mystery beyond the horizon. There is probably not a shred of truth in any of your tales --" Sharp teeth sank into his shoulder, branding him until he yelped. "But simple curiosity will drive me to sea to find out," he finished, forcibly lifting Rachid's fair head so as to look sternly into his face. "And I warn you, if you have been spinning me tales without a grain of truth in them, for your own amusement at the gullibility of a 'landlubber', you will get your comuppance."
"My -- comuppance?" Rachid echoed. "In what measure?"
"I shall think of something," Hassan promised darkly. "I shall invest in a rival shipping line and ruin you, till you must come home and depend on me for bread and water."
Rachid gave a snort of laughter. "You may try; and I may ruin you, until you have lost all and beg to sign on board as my cabin boy."
"Hm." Hassan's brow tugged into a scowl. "Then I must lower the stakes, for my father's fortune is intended for my heirs, not the jackals... I would have your price from you in other ways, never doubt it." He bit back a chuckle. "Perhaps I shall bind the captain in a carpet, sling him over my shoulder, kicking and shouting, and carry him off to be mated until he cannot walk. Is that fair come-uppance?"
Rachid's eyes were laughing, but ge feigned horror. "What -- for every time I deceive you?"
"For every time," Hassan affirmed.
"Then I shall be sore indeed," the mariner sighed, "and my crew will grow accustomed to seeing me carried off in a carpet." He shrugged. "If I cannot walk, you must carry me, of course sore or not -- mated to destruction or not -- there are still a captain's duties to perform."
Hassan's face was a shrewd mask. "You mean that all the tales of magic you have spun me have been mere stories?"
"Not all," Rachid told him. "In the past I have been in waters where the danger was terrible; in seas such as those, you will meet much magic. In future, I will court only the safe waters, wanting to return home with a whole skin. If I wish to bring home tales of magic, then, I will have to compose them myself, for your entertainment."
"Oh." Hassan smiled. "You imp, I love you. Come here at once." Rachid went into his arms to be kissed, and they lay nose to nose, studying one another. "And I threatened only in fun," Hassan whispered. "I will never hurt you knowingly, nor even make you sore, if I can help it."
"Foolish love," Rachid scolded. "I am not a little lad, that you must run about worrying for me. What have I done all my life before, without you? See -- I did survive!"
"Befriended by your first captain," Hassan teased, "who could not resist the face and eyes of a cherub, and adopted you, and then rescued by Sinbad, who opened his cabin and his bed to you, until I chased you onto a beach that night, and took you into my heart. Allah must love you as much as I do, to protect you as he does."
In answer to that, Rachid kissed him. "Then mayhap he will protect you also, since hurt to you is hurt to me." A yawn, a stretch, and the mariner settled to sleep. "I will show you realms of gold and lands of dark magic," he promised. "If there is danger, we will share it... We go together."
"Together," Hassan echoed, glancing at the sky in judgement of the hour. "Sleep the afternoon away, sweet lad. It will be evening sooner than you know."
It was more difficult to re-enter the palace, for the sky was clear and the moon showed her gibbous face among the stars; but Hassan had brought clothes for Rachid that were of indigo, and black suede boots, and moving from one well of shadow to the next, he was nearly invisible. He stole into the courtyards like a thief, scaling the vines to return to Kabir's rooms as Orion set. The palace was drowsing and almost silent; no one saw the prince's rooms breached, and Rachid frowned over that... Kabir had his share of enemies and more, and Hassan had been worried for his lover's safety. The threat of assassination was very real, and yet it was this simple to get into the royal chambers. Only the grave illness which had struck Kabir down on the very night of his coronation had stayed the assassins' hands, Rachid guessed. Better to wait and see if Kabir died of natural causes than risk the headman's block.
The dark, thief's clothing was bundled up and hidden in a chest beneath soiled bed linen, and Rachid waited for the morning, when Hassan would come to him. The guards at the door turned away the ministers, as Hussein had instructed, and the mariner was bored, hungary and restless before Hassan and General Hussein arrived at midmorning. Rachid wanted nothing more than to be held and fed, but with Hussein in the prince's boudoir, both were impossible. Hassan had brought food, but there were more pressing matters than an impostor's growling stomach.
"Word has gone about that you have a canker," Hussein was saying. "That it must be rooted out, or it will be the death of you." He allowed his expression to become wry. "There is more rejoicing over that than there was at the coronation! There is a healer in Greece who is famed for his treatments; perhaps it is magic, but he is said to work with his hands alone, and not use the knives. Kabir had a mortal fear of pain, since his face was damaged, and would not tolerate knives."
"So I have hired a ship," Hassan added. "I have bought the captain's loyalty with a lot of money, and the promise of more on our safe return. The ship leaves with the evening wind." He caught Rachid's hand. "We will be out of here tonight!"
"And what of -- my -- death?" Rachid asked, his fingers crushed in Hassan's grip, which served in lieu of an embrace.
"You will die on the road in Greece," Hassan told him. "It is the best that can be worked at short notice, and I have had enough of this subterfuge. Oh, Rachid, I have had word that the Griffin is in the port of Phaedra and will be there for a month or more while repairs are worked on her hull."
Rachid's face lit up. "Phaedra? Is that anywhere near the healer? Can we go there? I could look at ships there, and --"
Boyish and eager with enthusiasm, Hassan observed, and gave Hussein a dismissive nod. Hussein knew, without being told, what had transpired between the two unlikely lovers, and withdrew with a fond smile so as to let Hassan embrace his vivacious mate. "We will sail for Phaedra, I have made arrangements already," he said into the red-brown hair that tickled his nose. "Pack such of Kabir's belongings as you want -- they are all yours! Hussein is seeing to the gold that will buy your ship. I have already left my householding in the care of men I trust, and freedom is as close as a wharf in Phaedra." He hissed Rachid's smooth upper lip. "Captain Sinbad will not recognise you without the moustache."
"Oh, he will recognise me," Rachid said ruefully. "It was some time after I boarded the Griffin that I grew it. He laughed for a month, and pretended to complain each time he kissed me."
Hassan drew back with a frown at the remark, and Rachid gripped his arms. "Must I guard my heart from you, love? I had a life before I met you, as you had yours. You know that I shared much with Sinbad. If I must remember never to speak of it, be truthful with me now, and I shall be silent."
But Hassan shook his head. "No. I have cause to thank Allah that you were happy, that there has been such sweetness in your life as taught you to laugh and care, so that when you came to me you were you, and not some embittered old warrior whose hardened heart had no space for me." He tousled Rachid's soft hair. "Speak of Sinbad if you will... But if you do, remember also to tell me that you love me, lest I grow jealous."
"I love you," Rachid whispered, "and jealousy is absurd when my body is yours whenever you want or need it."
"Your body?" Hassan lifted Rachid's hands, kissing the palms, soft as they were from weeks of idleness and emollients. "As absurd as it may be... as much as I want your body, I want your heart more."
"That has belonged to you almost since the first," Rachid purred, a husky rumble in his throat. He melted against the bigger man, hugging him. "Now, enough of this maudlin talk of envy. Come and help me choose what to take. A prince's belongings are singularly useless, I will have to buy most of what I need in Phaedra! But some things are precious. What would you choose?"
Hassan had already earmarked various items that he could not leave behind; there was a robe of white silk, so sheer that it was nearly transparent; when Rachid wore it, it concealed yet displayed his every curve, leading the eye unerringly to the press of his nipples and the soft swell of genitals. Another robe was as green as his eyes, and a third was scarlet. Among Kabir's jewelry were several items Hassan had never coveted for himself but had learned to admire on his lover. A thick gold ring with an emerald set into it, a necklace of lapis lazuli and amber, bracelets and anklets that accentuated the mariner's fine bones and graceful limbs, silver that made his skin seem browner yet.
The garments and oddments of jewelry went into a single merchant's holdall, and Rachid stood in the middle of the prince's apartments, gazing about, trying to see something he needed or wanted. The truth was, he yearned only to escape, to be Rachid, and not Kabir, to revel in the free sky and open water, and be in love without need of secrecy. Sinbad would be delighted, he was sure; he had long counselled that Rachid should find someone of his own. Sinbad had three wives at home in Charak -- Mariana was his favorite but the others were loved almost as much, and there had been a time when Rachid had been envious of the captain's love. When Sinbad had brought young Mariana aboard, when the Griffin had set sail on the perilous quest fo Lemuria, no one had been more astonished than Rachid; as a rule Sinbad refused to take women into danger, and then -- with a woman in his cabin, the captain would have little time for his first mate... But Sinbad's heart had already warmed in love for the girl, and Rachid remembered with pride how he had not even tried to come between the two.
Now, there was no envy, no need for it; Hassan stood at his back, an embrace or a kiss no more than a smile away, there for the asking, and Rachid was itching to return to life.
"There is nothing more," he said, shrugging at the senseless oppulence that had surrounded Kabir. "If you must have the truth of me, I have grown tired of all this."
"Peasant," Hassan accused.
But Rachid shook his head. "Oh, no. Peasants lie awake at night dreaming of this nonsense. But I see little honour in it. Here, a man would grow so soft that he would forget what his sword was for! When does the ship leave for Phaedra?"
"The wind will be on the rise in a few hours," Hassan said, "and the skipper will be keen to make the most of the good airs. We can leave any time."
"Then let us go," Rachid said eagerly. "If i am supposed to be ill to the point of death, how will I get to the wharf?"
In fact, he was carried there in a covered litter by a team of Nubians, the last act in a play almost finished. Late afternoon shadows streamed across the dockside markets, and the ship was high at her berth, the crew gazing down at the procession which made its way noisily among the merchants. Rachid looked up at the vessel critically, noticing that it was a merchantman in need of paint and riding high with her hold empty. Her crew were idle. "How much did you pay to buy the loyalty of these dogs?" He hissed at Hussan. "If you paid much you were robbed.
"Faisel beat them down to a fair price," Hassan told him as he helped the invalid out of the litter and shepherded him up the shifting planking.
The roll of a ship felt good beneath Rachid's slippered feet and he hid a smile. "Tell the captain to sail with the wind," he whispered, glancing at the sky. "There will be a fair sailing breeze within the hour."
Hassan glanced up, wondering how in the world Rachid knew that, but said nothing... If he would follow his love to sea, there would be time to learn every trick of the seaman's trade. "Come this way, Sire, your cabin has been prepared," he said loudly, for the benefit of the crew.
It was as plush as could be managed on a merchantman, and Rachid nodded in approval. Wooden boards beneath the rugs, leaded windows in the stern, open to the rising sea wind, and a bed that was not hung with silks and presided over by the silent judgement of mirrors. He sat by the windows as Hassan shut the door and dumped their baggage by the bed. The sea was silver-green and inviting, its surface rippled by the breeze that would fill the sails as men went aloft in the rigging.
"You have missed the sea," Hassan said quietly, not a question.
"And am glad to be back," Rachid affirmed. He turned from the view to meet Hassan's gaze and frowned. "But I am taking you into an alien world, and you may not come to love it."
Hassan shrugged indifferently. "Where you go, I go, I have told you as much already. And in any case, until we are in the port of Phaedra, you are still Kabir, and I am still guarding the life of the ruler of Zerindah."
"Nonsense," Rachid scoffed. "Kabir is dead, and in that bed you are no more my guard than I am -- than I am the man who derives some perverse delight from the subjection of a warrior's body." He shuddered. "This is what they have been saying of us, and my honour is in tatters over it."
"Not to mention mine," Hassan quipped.
On deck, orders were shouted, there was a dull, muted thunder of canvas unrolling, the squeal of block and tackle, the rumble of the yards going up, the laughter of lads in the rigging. The ship rolled to port as her bow came about and Hassan put out a hand to steady himself.
"Landlubber," Rachid observed affectionately. "Only be patient, you will soon find your sea legs." He chuckled, a joke at his own expense. "Shall I tell you a secret?"
"Secrets -- between us?" Hassan demanded. "There shall be none, if I can help it?"
"I was sick, on my first voyage," Rachid said sheepishly. "The roll of the ship turned my stomach and I hung over the rail and wished I could die, until the Captain stopped shouting at me and put me to bed. He filled me with coffee and put a cold cloth on my head --"
"And you were a stowaway who should have been worked hard to pay for your passage," Hassan finished, shaking his head over the green eyed imp in mock disbelief... In fact it was all too easy to believe how Rachid would charm an old seahand, without even being aware of what he was doing.
"Oh, I did my work later," Rachid said drily. "He made a rigger of me. Which is how I fell and broke my face, remember."
"And nearly died," Hassan added, "so you told me. And would have died if you had not been cared for." He kissed the broken cheek, remembering the fine panic there had been the day Kabir had sustained his injury, and trying to put from him the image of his lover, struggling through the pain as best he could. "Will you make a rigger of me?" He teased.
"Hm." Rachid frowned, considering the possibilities. "I think not. Your face is too beautiful to be broken -- mine? The dent hardly shows."
"Then, what would you make of me?" Hassan pressed, eager to know.
"I told you. My cabin boy." Rachid was teasing now.
"Oh." Hassan put his hands on Rachid's shoulders for stability as the ship got underway and the Zerindah wharfs were framed in the rear windows. "And what does a cabin boy do?"
"Keep my charts rolled and dry," Rachid said solemnly, "which reminds me -- I shall need to buy a rutter. Sweep the decks clean, make up the bed, bring me my dinner, wash my linen, learn to read and make charts in the evening, sing to me for entertainment..." His voice softened. "Take me to bed and treat me gently with the gift of your body."
Hassan heaved an enormous sigh. "You would make me a menial," he moaned, "cooking and sweeping. And this, for one who has been a warrior all his life!"
"I would make you a lover," Rachid amended, pressing close and letting go the teasing. "And teach you the charts, of course."
"Of course." Hassan chuckled.
The ship came about onto her windward tack as she made it out through the heads, and the unaccustomed shift in the angle of the decking knocked Hassan off balance. He dumped the pair of them onto the bed, finding himself pillowed on a cursing, squirming Rachid who howled for air and demanded to know how anybody could be so innocent of the ways of ships.
"I may remind you," Hassan said darkly, "I am on top of you, sweet lad. And you are not my captain yet."
Little by little, Rachid quit his wriggling; his cheeks were flushed with exertion and laughter, and he wound both arms about Hassan's strong neck. "So you are on top of me, and I am no captain as yet... When I am the captain of my vessel, will it make any difference?"
Hassan blinked, examined the inquiry, and shook his head. "I doubt that it will," he admitted. "If the ship insists on leaning at crazy angles without a second's warning -- ow!" He yelped as Rachid bit him.
"There were three warnings," he said sternly, "all shouted on deck. One to the tillerhand, one to the riggers, and the third to the deckhands to duck the boom."
"Ah," Hassan said delicately. "I stand corrected."
"Stand?" Rachid bucked his hips before wrapping his long legs about Hassan. "This is what you call standing? I shall be fascinated to see what you do to sleep."
A kiss silenced him, and suddenly they were making love with a fervour that was exhausting.
Much later, Rachid knelt to be soothed with a dab of sweet oil, and gave Hassan a look of mock reproof. "If this is to happen every time the ship tacks onto a new heading, I am going to be very sore and you very exhausted."
"We will be sore," Hassan amended, putting away the oil and pulling Rachid against him on the messy bed. "Next time, I want to feel you inside me. It has been days, and I yearn for it." He yawned. "Oh, I expect I shall learn the signals and not trip upon you with each tack, given time."
Rachid digested that with a solemn expression. "Oh... In that case, I shall have to think of other excuses for tripping."
"You," Hassan accused drowsily, "are as wanton as you are beautiful, and as master of your own vessel will be insufferable." Rachid did not argue, burrowing closer and luxuriating in the roll of a ship beneath him and his lover's heat against him. In moments he was asleep, and Hassan let him drift away, pulling up th rugs as the sea wind grew cool from the windows.
Soon, Prince Kabir would be no more than a memory, Zerindah's peace and prosperity would be guaranteed -- and, in the port of Phaedra, Captain Sinbad would farewell his mate and greet an equal. Captain Rachid... Hassan smiled, almost asleep. "Insufferable," he guessed, mocking gently. "I hope."
-- THE END --