Ari sniffed the air. The square was some distance from the front, but he could still smell the sea. Limassol Market bustled, hustled and rustled with greed. Expensive spices sat alongside wooden spoons. Stallholders bellowed in Greek, Turkish and, of course, Arabic. Although the elite of the New Caliphate did not buy anything, they accepted whatever a stallholder might give them, in order that the wrong few words did not find their way to the Mutawwa'în. Occasionally, other sources might provide information for the Religious Police. In any event, some unfortunate would be dragged from his stall every day, screaming his innocence until they stoned him in front of the Mutawwa'în Barracks.
Strolling through the tightly arraigned stalls, Ari nodded at cousins or uncles and friends of friends. It was a sunny day. The island of Qubros looked beautiful on any fine day. Even the thought of the Religious Police could not dampen a young man's enthusiasm on such a day. He had a few dinar in his pocket and a girl to buy a present for. Something simple, something beautiful, something rare. Ari stopped at a stall with a few items scattered like a dying flower's petals on a grubby green cloth. A stooped fellow sat cross-legged atop a leather cushion. He seemed more a beggar than a trader, for all the world as though he should sit against the wall of a tavern with 'Zakat' chalked beside him.
A jewelled brooch with a rusted clasp caught the young Cypriot's eye. It looked very old, as though it could have belonged to the old man's grandmother. No, it was too... intricate. Simple, would do it. Simple. A small bundle of feathers, scarcely more than down, rolled from side to side in a low-sided bowl, stirred by a Mediterranean breeze.
'What on earth is that?' The young man said.
The old man pointed to his mouth and shook his head. Then he took a leather bound book from beneath his trestle table.The old man's twisted fingers flicked through the stiff pages. The hand-written Arabic flowed over them, interrupted by the occasional inked drawing. He turned the book towards Ari and pointed a bent finger.
Ari laughed long and loud. 'Phoenix feathers?! You must think me the greenest of fools, Old Man.'
He passed his fingers over a yellow metal ring. It contained a single red stone. The thick band was inscribed with intricate calligraphy. Ari could make out the word 'Haroun.' The old man's fingers attempted to riffle the pages of his book once more, but Ari held up a hand,
'No, Old Man, I do not believe that you have Haroun Al Raschid's signet ring. Do you take me for a fool still?'
There were two or three unprepossessing gew-gaws on the green cloth. Near to the Old Man's left hand a green glass bottle stood on the cloth. The bottle was dusty and seemed older than the man himself. It might have once held tinctures, potions or anything at all. The one miraculous thing about it was that anyone had prized it enough to keep it, and that it did not lie in broken shards by the side of any of many roads. The pedlar, aware that Ari's eye had been drawn to the bottle, held it towards him. It seemed hot in Ari's hand, although the bottle had enjoyed the shade of the nearby buildings. Ari held it up to the light. The bottle was empty of liquid, appearing to contain only scraps of paper or cloth. Ari saw the old man staring at him, a wary look in his eye.
The book was open at yet another beautiful drawing, this time showing the bottle. Amid the swirling Arabic script were three words in the banned Roman lettering.
'Land Is Far.'
'I'll take the bottle, the ring and the book, Pedlar. And it will be charity.'
The old man held up the fingers of both hands.
Ari shook his head and held up two. The trader held his sides and mimed laughter. He held up seven fingers and looked over the young man's shoulder. Ari was not to be distracted,
The old man was dropping the rest of his wares into a large satchel. The bottle remained in Ari's left hand and the ring and book on the green cloth. The old man's eyes were darting left and right and his tongue licked the lips of his toothless mouth. He nodded his head vigourously. Ari smiled at him, glad to see the three fingers in the air. Ari accepted the book and ring thrust towards him and threw three dinar coins onto the threadbare cloth. As he turned away the old man was bundling his cloth and cushion, his breath heavy and short. Ari whistled softly to himself as he walked away, nodding at the Mutawwa'în as they passed.