Baghdad was ruled by the Caliph Musa al-Hadi. The Caliph was a wicked man, who attempted to poison his own mother, and committed many other outrages. Ever was Abd al-Katheb at his side, whispering cunning and odious sophistries to calm the conscience of his master. For this service the unrighteous courtier was greatly rewarded, and his wealth was piled as high as his infamy.
At last al-Hadi was smothered to death by the women of his harem, and his virtuous younger brother Harun al-Rashid became Caliph. The new Caliph spoke thus:
"O Abd al-Katheb, it is well-known that your master, my late brother, was greatly influenced in his wickedness by your counsel. Many say that your life should be forfeit. Yet you served only as commanded. Further, Musa al-Hadi has died for his crimes, and it is not just that a debt already paid should be paid twice over. You are wont to boast that your words are so honeyed that you could prove a stone to be the moon, or a beggar's scabs to be rubies. I decree, therefore, that you shall toil in the palace stables, to be released only when you can prove the muck thereof to be purest gold."
Abd al-Katheb was thus sent to the stables to be the servant of animals, and to labor amid filth. Such was his rage and humiliation that his serpent's tongue deserted him. Had he kept his head he could have convinced the grooms and stable hands that he was the victim of an injustice, or that he voluntarily lowered himself from humility. Perhaps he could even have proved that the muck of the stables was purest gold, and gained his freedom. But instead he was as bitter and hateful in manner as in reality, and gained no sympathy.
One day, as he was bewailing his fate, he saw a crone who was a stranger to him.
"O crone," he said, "I see that you have a cheerful countenance. Have you come to gloat at my misery? Though I marvel that you have not been gathered up and thrown away, mistaken for a pile of horse dung." The crone did not respond to his jibe.
"I smile always, but do not gloat," replied the crone. "Indeed I have come to prove Harun al-Rashid a liar, and secure your release."
"Two mighty tasks," the former courtier said dryly, though in truth he thirsted for hope, and the taste of it was sweet. "Yet how may this poor ostler repay you?"
"In truth you have given me much already, though you know me not. Therefore I shall take only a small piece of meat. And since you are poor I shall not take a choice cut, but one you have scorned. And finally, O Abd al-Katheb, I shall not take even this if you can tell me my name."
Such was the certainty in the woman's voice that Abd al-Katheb did not doubt her sincerity, or her power to deliver what she promised, though he of all people should have known that the word is not the deed. Therefore he replied, "I accept your bargain. I cannot tell you your name, since although I know many names, they are those of men of dignity and power, not toothless and wretched old women." Again the woman made no response to his insult, but merely continued smiling.
"This being so, I shall return at sunset, when the bargain shall be fulfilled." With that, she left Abd al-Katheb to his work.
Abd al-Katheb was as greedy as he was false, and to give even a small piece of meat for liberation was against his nature. Therefore he desired greatly to know the name of his savior. To this end he put on the mask that he had laid aside, and all in the stable were greatly pleased by his new attitude of repentance and good fellowship, as they thought. But although he subtly guided the conversation towards the subject, none could name the old woman. This displeased him greatly, despite the great prospect suddenly before him. For it is the way with all who seek wealth and power, that it is as if they drink salt water: the more they attain their desire, the less they are satisfied. Therefore Abd al-Katheb would have found reason to complain in Paradise.
At last the sun set, and behold! The old woman was before him, though he did not see her coming despite his careful watch.
"O Abd al-Katheb," she asked, "have you guessed my name?"
"Indeed I have not, old woman," he replied. "But I remind you that the penalty for this failure is merely a small piece of meat."
"I have not forgotten," said the old woman. Having spoken, she reached into his chest, and pulled out his heart. Abd al-Katheb fell dead on the ground. Thus Harun al-Rashid was made a liar. For the false vizier had not proven that the muck of the stables was gold, yet he had been released from his punishment.
James Hutchings lives in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and fiction365 among other markets. His blog, http://teleleli.blogspot.com, is updated daily.