A cool breeze blew across the oasis, widening Alexander’s smile. Chin in one hand, elbow in the other, he watched Hassar’s fingertips fly across the oud’s strings — strong, yet warm, like the millions of sand grains surrounding their paradise.
When Hassar ended his song, Alexander clapped gently. “I don’t think I shall ever get tired of that sound, old friend.”
“Heh.” Hassar tuned his strings as he spoke. “That is good, because the oud is the only thing I know how to play.”
“I should have brought my lute. I always keep forgetting to bring it so we can compare.”
“No, no, no, friend. When I come to visit you, then you can show me. Too much stuff from home weighs one down.”
“And then we’d fight about it.”
“And then, we would talk about God.”
“And who made the lute.”
Hassar nodded. “Exactly. Not worth it.”
Alexander sighed. “As for… visiting, I wish you could. Things have just been too… noisy in Cael. Politics is getting out of hand. Food spoiling. Sages fighting. Treasuries shriveling.”
Hassar looked up expectantly. “You need money?”
Alexander sat up straighter than a cactus arm. “Oh, no! No, Hassar, no, you don’t have to –”
“How much, friend?”
“Hassar, please we do this every — ”
Alexander folded his arms.
Hassar raised his eyebrows.
Children and women frolicked. Camel caravans snaked along the sands. The oasis breeze suddenly turned dry and harsh in Alexander’s nostrils.
And with another sigh, his shoulders slumped. “Hassar, I can’t keep getting money from you like this.”
“Because we’re not the princes we used to be. We’re kings now.”
Hassar lowered his eyebrows. “You… are ashamed of me?”
“No, friend, no! How could I ever be ashamed of you? I envy you! I always have! You live in — in heaven! And Cael is — It’s hell. There, I said it. It’s absolute hell. And I don’t want Cael’s Hell to spill over in your Heaven.” Alexander placed his hand on top of Hassar’s. “And the last thing I want is for politics to get in the way of our friendship. Which is why…” He swallowed mournfully. “This will be the last time we see each other.”
Hassar looked down at Alexander’s golden wedding band, then at his friend. He placed his oud at his feet.
“No,” Hassar said. “It is not.”
Alexander gripped Hassar’s hand. “Yes, it is.”
“No, it is not, because you will go to Cael, and you will stand up to your father’s men and your father’s sages. And you will tell them that my people are a peaceful people, and that they have nothing to be afraid of — just as we are not afraid of the scholars and the travelers and the women who all have hair like corn like you do. You will stand up to them, and you will do the right thing. And I know that you will do this, because I have seen a good boy become a good man before my very eyes.” Hassar shook Alexander’s shoulder. “I know that you will do this, because you are my friend.”
Alexander’s heartbeat rose to his throat. How could Hassar say all that with such conviction? How could it have been that Hassar never changed since childhood? Still the same Hassar who played the oud, but had the surety of a spear through a fish? Hazel eyes burning like a lion’s — the eyes of Abd-Assan’s king?
King Alexander of Cael closed his eyes. “I… I can’t, Hassar.”
“Not now. Not when you are still a lamb. That is… That is in your bible, right? Something about a lamb and a lion?”
He smiled. “It’s about something different, but I understand what you are saying.”
“Then you will return to Cael? And you will be a lion?”
Alexander opened his eyes. “Only if you teach me how, friend.”
Hassar blinked. Snorted. Threw back his head and laughed. The sound echoed throughout the stone pavilion.
Alexander’s lips parted. “Wh-Wha — What’s so funny?”
“I cannot teach you what you already know, my friend.” Hassar pulled Alexander’s hand, and they both stood up from the chair. “But I can help you never forget it again.”