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Under the Wolf’s Tail
Fruit of The Deceiver #1
© 2014 James LaFond
MAR/19/14
  • Part 1: The Black Horseman
    • Chapter 1: The Lone Quill
      • Under the Wolf's Tail

“In all of the Realm of Man’s Submission to God no house is more heartily provided for than that on the banks of the mighty River Nile.”
-Abraham bin Yiju, 1058

 

Cairo, October 1200

Under the Wolf’s Tail

Since coming to practice in Cairo Abd al-Latif had been blessed by Merciful God, with the friendship of Sulyman Ali, who permitted him to keep an apartment in his vast house, refusing all payment. There was, however, always payment; either that willed by God in his greatness; or that inflicted by the hand of The Deceiver, dwelling as he did in Damnation. Since the flood had failed in June, and, consequently, no fields of grain stalks now bent before the dry breath of the desert, one might be forgiven for suspecting that God’s will was elsewhere occupied and The Deceiver’s hand was nigh.

‘Thank Merciful God that I am a man of means.’

Abd al-Latif was a renowned doctor, who was, even this instant, writing his own book on practicing medicine in Egypt. On his left, beneath the candle, was The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina. He could do no worse than to follow the old boy’s lead. His own title however, he felt wanting, though he had penned it none-the-less, and sat now wondering if he should toss off the parchment and start anew. He dipped his last quill—for the markets had been infernal after the famine, and he had been adverse to travel there—and read out loud from his own hand, words not yet dry upon the page, “Useful and instructive reflections on things that I have seen and events that I have witnessed in Egypt.”

The voice of Uncle Ibis, his Ethiopian Christian slave, who had been gifted to him by the Sultan himself, for successfully treating his infant son, sounded rich yet hollow behind him, “Learned, if flowery of words; fitting of both your intellect and your temperament I should say Master.”

He turned on his cushioned stool and regarded his most valuable possession; a slave it was not possible for him to dislike, and questioned his sincerity, as was his habit with servants that flattered, but had been reduced to a conversational artifice with this sharp-eyed old fellow, “To be honest, you believe this wretched title accurately reflects my medical opinion and character?”

“I do Master. The ghost of your mother abides within and seeks expression for the knowledge that the ghost of your good father drove you to assemble in your mind. Besides, why consign that parchment to the candle-maker when you could use the money to buy a slave boy that might carry this breakfast of yours in my stead?”

He laughed as he noticed the tiny basket of dates and pine nut cakes and the cup of coffee in the talon like hands of this Ibis of a man. “Uncle Ibis, if the ghost of my mother abides in me, the ghost of some scrounging Jew abides in you.”

Uncle Ibis grinned with his perfect ivory teeth, and set the meal before him with a hiss that sounded like the closing of some djinn’s deal with a fairytale prince, “Then Master, I shall require some silver with the Caliph’s image—as it is preferred by the slavers—so that I may purchase a boy for you before they all waste away. The slavers are unloading their freight cheap to avoid the expense of feeding them.”

Abd al-Latif felt a chill whenever his human property’s judgment exceeded his own—and he felt it coldly now. There was no sense in putting on airs with this wise old boy unless as a jest, so he permitted his shoulders to slouch in that way that he never did before strangers, or particularly patients, and acceded with a bit of a groan and a nod as he selected the runt of the dates to break his fast in the bleak shadows of The Wolf’s Tale as his Turkic mother called it; ‘the false dawn’ as his well-to-do father new the waking hour.

Uncle Ibis’ long hand lay gently on his shoulder and his deep voice, like the tone of a Frankish bell, tolled, “Master al-Latif, so it will be done in your name. Also, if the learned doctor might note the prodigious and well-honeyed pine nut cake nestled among the finest dates out of Master Sulyman’s larder, be mindful that your Old Uncle Ibis slaved long and hard in the embrace of the pantry matron’s arms to procure such fare for your breakfast.”

Abd al-Latif had never been a man of composure where the doings and humor of warriors and ruffians were concerned, and he knew Uncle Ibis to have been a warrior among his people, had indeed been a bodyguard to the Sultan. Hence he felt the shame of a school boy when blushing at his classmates’ first prank when the date in his hand hit the floor, or wood have had not Uncle Ibis’ claw like hand darted fourth and saved it from the dusty flagstones at his feet.

He looked up into the hawk-like eyes of his towering manservant and blurted, “Merciful God man, the fat old Circassian wench with the chin whiskers and bad teeth!”

Uncle Ibis then straightened the taller, as if standing before the Sultan after loping off a criminal head, and intoned sternly, “All for you Young Master al-Latif, as well as the grim bargain I arrived at with this vile bitch, to embrace her nightly, so long as the famine persists, in order to secure for you the second choicest morsels—ahead of Master Suleyman’s fat brother, yet second to the Master of the House, who your honor would never permit to subvert.”

Abd al-Latif was shocked and amazed, and stood in reverence to his slave’s sacrifice, coming up to his ebony shoulder, and all of a sudden feeling that he was being played like a boy's toy, but enjoying the humor in such a dark time. “So Uncle Ibis, as a physician I congratulate you on your virility, and as your Master do thank you for this great sacrifice on behalf of my discerning palate. But, I sense a need, I see the patient’s needful plea in your ebon eyes—you have not contracted venereal disease have you?”

Ibis grinned. “Pestilent free and long unplowed that field was Master.”

Abd al-Latif went along with their charade trying his best to match wits with his cunning servant. “Ah, I see, nearing fifty years as you are, and your paramour’s charms falling somewhat short of praiseworthy, you mean to request an aphrodisiac? This request would lead me to believe that you have a finer mare waiting in the stables old stallion.”

Uncle Ibis feigned hurt, and continued their game to the final act. “Pray Master, but it is not so. The men of my tribe are renowned for their virility. Rather, it is the matter of the woman’s breath—fierce as that of a hyena in August.”

They both broke into laughter at that, and he reached for his apothecary notes, scribbled out a prescription with his lone quill, and handed it to his servant.

"I could use another sheaf of quills as well. This is my last. Take six silver from my purse. I’ll adjust the petty ledger.”

Ibis then backed up and gave him his tiny bow—it was either that or the Sultan’s grand bow—which seemed ridiculous to them both and was reserved for their private charades.

As Ibis stalked off on legs double-pace long, Abd al-Latif thought to himself, ‘He is a proud man, making our charade a prudent lancing of the sore wound that is our bond. I wonder how deep his loyalty lay. Am I but a dupe—merely a throat to be slit when we take the long road home; to my home, in the farthest corner of the world from his?’

He regarded the lone page of his book, and the lone quill in his hand, and momentarily harbored a superstition that perhaps the lone quill and the lone parchment symbolized the old Ethiopian warrior, and the young Arab doctor, both strangers in Cairo, a land presently languishing under the cruel hooves of Famine.

‘If so, which of us is the quill and which the parchment? I wish you were here to answer that with your fairytale mottos Mother, or you Father, with your prescriptions for behavior.’

He sipped of his coffee, ironically an import from Uncle Ibis’ own lands, and doubtless a medicinal commodity of which Sina would have approved.

‘Wake me from my scholar’s trance, far-travelled friend bean, and let me master this day.’

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