In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

One Thousand and One Nights

Copyright © 2006 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

One Thousand and One Nights

     “It is your turn to begin,” said Sikander.

     “I know,” replied Tariq in a matching whisper. Stomach-down on the thin mattress, he lifted his head to face the steel mesh that separated them. Sikander was a shadow-dappled shape in the electric twilight.

“Once there were two friends who lived in a village in the mountains.” His elbows dug into the metal shelf beneath the mattress, so he shifted them to the pillow. “Like all young men, they wondered if they would marry beautiful and obedient women and raise families full of sons, and if like their fathers they would tend crops and goats or work in a shop, or if God had planned some greater destiny for them.”

A single dry cough sounded from one of the neighboring cages.

“Then, suddenly one day, they heard a call from a powerful warlord. ‘The infidel has invaded our country,’ he said. ‘Who will meet him on the field of battle and help me drive him out in the name of God?’ Now the warlord was a devout ruler, fierce in the enforcement of Sharia. He and his men had beheaded many hundreds, and punished thousands more, for their crimes against faith. In fact, because the friends were not as devout as the warlord, at first they did not come out of their mountains.”

“What were their names?” asked Sikander.

“Who?”

“The two friends.”

“What would you like their names to be? Tariq and Sikander, I suppose?”

“Of course.”

“Very well then.” Tariq continued quietly. “Tariq and Sikander finally joined the battle when the enemy came into the skies on flying things — looking like the great simurghs out of ancient stories, except that instead of being wise these things were evil. They were feathered with shiny metal like blue steel and red gold, and studded with great jewels that shone like the flames of Hell, which was in fact where they came from. Soaring on these birds of burning metal, the enemy dropped exploding fires, blasting entire towns to ashes — houses, marketplaces, and mosques alike. People were consumed in flames, and every family lost someone to death.”

“Why didn’t God protect them?” asked Sikander.

“I don’t know. Perhaps many of them were sinners. Perhaps their fates were already written on their foreheads.” Tariq lowered his voice further. “Perhaps God had turned away from them.”

A metal gate clanked shut, and Tariq held his breath. They heard footsteps: two pairs of boots striding not quite hastily upon smooth cement. Shadows in uniform swiftly passed their cages. Not until the strides ended with the clank of another gate did the youths release a nearly simultaneous sigh. Following a further cautious moment of silence, Tariq resumed his story.

“Anyway, when word came that the invaders were marching over the mountains, the two young men — Tariq and Sikander — waited to confront them with others of their village. For days they had to endure a hard life amid the rocks, with only a little food and drink, while the enemy continued to hurl fire and death around them. Many who had joined them were killed or horribly wounded. Finally, when there were only a few of them left, Tariq and Sikander escaped with them to take refuge in some caves, where they would wait to ambush the invaders.”

Through the mesh and shadow, Tariq saw Sikander lift his head.

“Why didn’t they run ahead to meet them?” asked Sikander.

“You know why. They were brave but not foolish. It would invite a quick death to stand under the open sky and the sharp eyes and deadly fires of the enemy’s simurghs. They were willing to die for their people and their God. But they would not simply throw their lives away before sending as many of the invaders as possible into death ahead of them.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Sikander.

“I know it’s right,” whispered Tariq harshly. “After all, who is telling this story?”

“Are you going to talk forever?” rasped a voice nearby.

“Who is that?” asked Tariq.

“An old man who needs his sleep.”

“Father Hazrat?” queried Sikander.

“I am almost finished,” said Tariq.

“If the Americans hear you,” the old man replied, “you will really be finished.”

“We don’t care if they hear us,” whispered Sikander.

“Yes, you do,” answered the old man.

The young men hunkered down inside their sweaty blankets and remained silent for some moments. Down the corridor someone snored; another moaned in his sleep.

“Is that all?” whispered Sikander at last.

“Do you want to hear more?”

“Yes.”

“All right,” Tariq continued hoarsely. “The two friends stayed in the cave with their fellow warriors for days while the fires of the enemy exploded around them, until they feared their food would run out. Finally it was decided that, because they were the youngest and strongest, Sikander and Tariq would scout the area for supplies and for sight of the enemy. For most of a day they wandered the land around the cave, hiding well whenever the sharp-eyed evil simurghs soared overhead. Finally they spotted the invading army. And they were horrified by what they saw.”

Thinking he heard the rattle of a gate, Tariq paused.

“Tell me,” said Sikander.

“Most of the enemy belonged to the demon race,” Tariq resumed warily. “They had huge naked skulls like dull metal, with long horns. Their hides were gray and brown and so thick that knives and bullets would not penetrate them. They each had four arms, and in each of their hands they carried weapons forged in Hell. They traveled with great beasts, all armored with iron scales, that lurched forward on many legs and belched fire.”

“Didn’t they attack the invaders?” asked Sikander.

“Can’t you guess why not? There were too many, and they were too strong. The friends would have needed an army of their own behind them, but they were only two.”

“Maybe if they had known what was going to happen to them . . .”

“But they could not know,” said Tariq. “In fact, you cannot know, because I am telling this part of the story.”

The metal gate at the near end of the corridor clattered, and Tariq froze. Several pairs of boots approached. Tariq pressed his eyes closed as footsteps pounded closer. Shadows flickered across his eyelids, and then the steps stopped nearby. Barely daring to breathe, Tariq heard a cage door being unlocked, then stern American voices and the forceful jostle of bodies and the jangle of chains being fastened. A groan was answered by, “Shut up or we’ll shut you up!”

Tariq knew the familiar story of the noises: the percussive rattle of chains as the captive was yanked from the cage, the clanging and locking of the door, the pummeling of bootsoles on the cement floor drowning out the flapping of bare feet in their midst. When the gate at the far end of the corridor slammed shut, Tariq still heard boots scuffing cement not far away and a muttered exchange. He dared to squint into Sikander’s cage and found him lying still on his shelf.

Tariq could only feign sleep. He could see the white light of the corridor through his eyelids; he could hear the low occasional voices of the guards punctuated now and then by a deep-throated chuckle. In the cage beyond Tariq’s feet, Rashid, the middle-aged Pakistani who complained of a bad heart, turned on his shelf. The atmosphere slumped over him like a humid blanket, thicker than the one provided to sleep under. It was not like the clear high air of home, so sharp whether iced by winter or honed by the heat of summer. Here he could not tell one season from another; he had long ago lost track of the time of year. The months slipped from one to the other, all of them the same.

But sleep crept up on him unawares, as he discovered only when he awoke abruptly, a cry strangling in his throat. When he heard the bustle in the corridor, he prayed that he had not cried aloud, prayed that the guards were not coming for him, even though he no longer believed his prayers would be heard. A cage door opened nearby, and the rattle of chains told him a prisoner was being returned. After the guards left, Tariq contemplated the low creaking noise he was hearing, like that of a rusty gate wobbling in the wind, until he realized it came from the prisoner who had just arrived. The sound haunted him until he fell asleep again.

Tariq was roused again from dark dreams by the clanging of metal doors, by the unfriendly light, by the harsh voices of guards reverberating in the corridor. He rose from his sweat-soaked pillow to Sikander’s sleepy stare. He pushed himself off the metal cot bolted to the cement wall, stood with his back to the corridor to use the stoop toilet at the foot of his cot, aware that Rashid the Pakistani was doing the same on his left. As soon as he had finished, he washed in the adjoining sink in a careless approximation of ghusl, sullenly wondering again how you could purify yourself for prayer in water the color of urine.

“They took the boy Feroz,” Sikander said quietly.

Tariq peered through the inflexible mesh of his door at the cage across from Sikander’s. A shape in everyone’s white shirt and pants lay crumpled on the cot.

“They replaced him with someone else,” Sikander added.

The body made that creaking noise again, something between a moan and a sob but shoved deep into the throat. In the cage directly across from Tariq, the gangly fool Nas stared at the newcomer, his thick lower lip drooping and showing off his bad teeth. Suddenly the speaker crackled and the call to prayer emerged, and Tariq dropped to his knees on the cement floor and faced his toilet. He was still not convinced that direction was east, but it was the best that could be done in the tiny confines of the cage.

No sooner had prayers ended than Tariq heard guards wheeling the breakfast trolley into the corridor and slamming the first trays into cage doors. By the time they reached Sikander, he and Tariq were sitting on their cots. Tariq stared at the floor as the hatch over the slot was unlocked and the tray with breakfast shoved onto the metal shelf inside. He did not stand up until the guard pushed the trolley on. Breakfast was cooked mush, an apple, and tepid tea, and Tariq returned to his cot to eat. One had to eat fast, because sometimes no sooner had the guards delivered all the meals than they returned to the head of the corridor to pick up the trays again.

For a brief time after breakfast the Americans left the corridor, and the fool Nas, who continued to think they were imprisoned in India, dared to speak.

“He did not eat,” he said.

Tariq merely looked at him.

“The new guy,” Nas added, gesturing at him where he lay curled on his cot. “He did not pray either.”

As if responding, the man in question emitted a thin, hoarse whimper.

“Maybe he is refusing food,” said Sikander. “He could be one of the hunger strikers.”

“He does not look like a striker,” rejoined Rashid. “Besides, haven’t you heard the stories? They say the strike has been broken.”

The stories were fresh in Tariq’s memory — stories of harsh treatment for the strikers, of hoses shoved down noses, of men left bleeding for days, strapped to chairs or tossed in cold, solitary cells. Stories of death by torment or suicide.

The new arrival croaked again. Nas slapped the mesh between them to get his attention.

“Leave him alone,” hissed Hazrat. “You’ll bring the Americans.”

Soon the guards returned anyway — two pairs of them — but they stopped further down the corridor to open two cages, shackle two prisoners, and lead them away.

“Maybe we will get exercise today,” said Sikander hopefully but quietly.

“They are probably punishing those who break the rules,” replied Hazrat, even more quietly. “You will find out. They know when you’ve been talking instead of sleeping.”

Tariq dismissed the old man’s remark, but it hovered in his thoughts as he listened for the return of the guards. Eventually he heard them: the clang of the gate at the end of the corridor, the bootsteps on cement, the rattle of chains and doors, the occasional barked order as they locked prisoners back in their cages. Then two pairs of boots briskly approached. Tariq remained seated on his cot, his eyes on the floor, even as the boots stopped in front of his cage. He could not help looking up, however, as keys jangled at his door.
O

ne green uniform took a single step inside his cage, filling it with shadow. Tariq complied with the familiar order to stand up. As the other guard stood in the doorway, clutching his rifle, the first fastened a chain around Tariq’s waist, then attached the conjoined cuffs to his scarred wrists. Tariq felt his heart pounding as he fixed his gaze on the man’s chest, where the name plate was taped over. Having shackled his ankles, the guard grabbed Tariq’s elbow and pulled him through the door. He shuffled hastily, helplessly, trying to keep up with the long strides of the guards. He kept his eyes on the floor in front of him as they led him through corridor after corridor, gate after gate, all gleaming with steel mesh and razor wire. When they reached the central exercise court, Tariq breathed easier.

He was taken into a pen about twice the length of his cage, one of several side by side, each with a single prisoner, almost all of them kicking soccer balls. Sunlight filtered through the mesh and netting overhead, finding its way into the haze of dust; this was the closest he ever got to being outdoors. Tariq had heard the American guards refer to this area more than once as the “chicken run,” though he did not know what that meant. His shackles were removed, and with some relief he began to kick the ball into the surrounding mesh. He avoided looking at the men on either side of him.

He avoided looking until another prisoner rattled past between a pair of guards, and the man in the next pen uttered a sound, a single syllable that apparently even took him by surprise, judging by the expression Tariq saw on his face. Tariq guessed he was Chechen. The chained prisoner glanced reflexively at the one who had spoken; his face glimmered with recognition before he was shoved forward. The nearer guard jammed his rifle butt against the mesh, and the Chechen jumped back. He continued to stare at their backs, musingly rubbing the knuckles of one hand. He had to know he had violated a taboo.

When the guards had locked their prisoner in the furthest pen, they returned. They opened the door to the Chechen. While one pointed his rifle, the other strode inside, grabbed him by both shoulders, and swung him toward the exit. He stumbled through, bumping the metal jamb and barely keeping his feet. The guards shackled him and shoved him forward. He tumbled into the dust just outside Tariq’s pen.

“Get up!” one of the guards growled, as both reached for his elbows. The Chechen was hauled to his feet with a guttural whimper. Tariq thought he could hear joints cracking, but it may have just been the chains.

“Move!” the guard barked. They marched away at top speed, the prisoner tripping between their grips.

Tariq realized he had stopped kicking his ball. As he resumed, so did the sound of other balls being kicked.

After Tariq was returned to his own cage and the chains removed, his guards moved down the corridor to extract someone else. No sooner had they left than he discovered that the new prisoner, the one brought last night, was sitting on the edge of his cot, rocking rapidly. His face was bearded and bony; his lips were pulled back in a pained grimace that made his yellow teeth appear prominent. Nas was watching him with slack-mouthed fascination.

“He has been doing that since you were taken away,” Sikander explained quietly when the guards were out of hearing.

Nas rapped with his fingertips on the mesh between them. The man stopped rocking just long enough to mumble a sentence in nasal Arabic.

“What did you say?” said Nas, who like Tariq and Sikander spoke only Pashto.

On Tariq’s other hand, Rashid the Pakistani spoke up. “He wants to know if you are a woman.”

Nas stared dumbly in Rashid’s direction. The Arab spoke again.

“He wants to know if any of us are women.”

For a few seconds Nas visibly hovered between confusion and bemusement.

“Has he lost his mind?” he asked at last.

“Yes,” answered Rashid.

Even Nas stopped watching the man rock on his shelf when the second call to prayer came. Somewhat afterward the guards shoved lunch through their doors: a bowl of lentil stew, a roll, an apple, a small bottle of clear water. Then the sultry afternoon stretched ahead, interrupted only by the third prayer of the daily namaz. With nothing else to do, the fool Nas napped; old Hazrat prayed over his beads, while Rashid the Pakistani paged through his Quran. Even if the guards were out of hearing, Tariq and Sikander did not tell tales in the daytime because then there would be nothing to look forward to, but today they passed time speculating together about what it would be like to be with a woman. As he often did, Sikander mentioned the girl back in their village whom he had been eyeing.

“If I had been as old as I am now,” said Sikander, “I would have asked my father to talk to her father about bringing us together.”

“She would not have wanted you.”

“She would have,” Sikander insisted. “Besides, she would have had to marry me if our fathers had agreed. And then I would have enjoyed the flesh of a woman — many times, and created many children.”

“Instead, you are here,” said Tariq.

“It could be worse,” Sikander reminded him. “It could be as it was at the beginning. We could be like the important prisoners who still get interrogated.”

“At least we would have some reason for being here.”

“But surely you would not trade places with them.”

The newcomer across the corridor croaked. Tariq wondered if he had been one of those important prisoners, and he knew Sikander was wondering the same. If so, he was not so important any more. Tariq had to admit to himself that it was better to be ignored, even if it meant languishing immobile through an endless string of days.

During afternoon prayers, Tariq considered again that even these had become routine and no longer filled him with the sense of brotherhood and hope that they once had. Back on his cot, he paged listlessly through the Quran, contemplating this evening’s story until recalling that it was Sikander’s turn to continue. He would just have to wait.

Dinner was boiled chicken with vegetables and rice. Slow hours later, after the final prayer of the day, another humid night rolled over them. A short shower pummeled the roof overhead. Eventually they no longer heard the guards prowling and growling in the eternal illumination of the corridor.

Finally it was time for Sikander to resume the tale.

“After spotting the demon army,” he began, “the two friends hurried back to the cave of their warrior band to tell what they had seen, bringing what little food they had found. But to their horror the demon foe had arrived there before them, and every last one of their companions had been killed. Most, in fact, had been torn apart to make a meal for the demons, and their raw, gnawed bones lay everywhere.

“In grief and respect for the dead warriors, Sikander and Tariq gathered the remains and buried them in the sight of God, with prayers and honors. But no sooner had they finished when a shadow passed over them, and they saw overhead one of the enemy’s simurghs, its feathers sparking with blood red lights like sunshine on rubies and copper. It flew close enough that both of them shot at it with their rifles. God must have glanced away at that moment, however, for they suddenly found themselves surrounded by demon fighters. These were even more hideous to look upon up close than they had been from a distance — their gray-green skin all covered with warts and boils, the fangs in their cruel snouts long and yellow, some broken but all sharp as knives. Their corrupt bodies smelled like burning sulfur and rotting flesh.

“Sikander and Tariq fought the demons, singing God’s praises because they were certain they were going to die. But their blows fell on hides as hard as horn, and they could do little before an evil spell was cast over them, and the two young warriors were smothered in darkness. They could see nothing; they could hear nothing. Even their limbs were lost to them. Although they cried out, they could not hear their own voices let alone one another’s. It was as if they had both been swallowed by death, although still awake – as though they had been buried deep underground, which in fact Sikander feared for a time. Yet after a while it felt like they were flying through the air.”

“If they could feel nothing, how could they feel that?” asked Tariq.

Sikander hesitated. “By God’s grace,” he answered. “They didn’t know how long they floated in darkness — at least a day and a night, though at the time it seemed like a year. And all this time they were still bound by the evil spell, which tied their hands and feet and kept them in unceasing night. As they flew, Sikander filled the darkness with thoughts of the girl who waited for him back at his village, a beautiful young woman named Shahrzad –”

“Oh, not this again.”

“– who had dark eyes that flashed like thunderclouds and breasts as large and round as melons –”

“And who was taking advantage of Sikander’s absence to give herself to the other men of their village.”

“Quiet!” said Sikander too loudly.

They listened breathlessly. At first there was only silence. Then they heard the sound they did not want to hear: the gate opening at the end of the corridor, boots striding toward them. As they slowed, the madman across from Sikander moaned something in Arabic. Eyes shut, Tariq held absolutely still between the thin blanket and the thin mattress. The boots stopped beside his cage. For a long time the guard stood just outside, shuffling then stopping, shuffling then stopping. Tariq was sure he felt the shadow fall on him once, twice. He tried to remember to breathe naturally, as if asleep.

Finally the boots hurried away, and the gate at the end of the corridor clanged shut.

“See,” Sikander rasped, “your interruptions brought the guard.”

Tariq did not reply, and Sikander said nothing further.

It was not long before the gate opened and closed again, and this time two pairs of boots hustled on the cement floor toward them. As they approached, so did the rattle of chains, and Tariq tensed on his cot.

Do not let them take me, he prayed. Please, not me.

They stopped in front of Sikander’s cage. The door opened. Despite his efforts to remain still, Tariq found his eyes open, found himself peering through the steel mesh as the guards roused his friend off the cot.

“Why?” Sikander said weakly in Pashto. “What have I done?”

“Shut up!” one of the guards answered in English, as Sikander was jerked roughly to his feet.

Everyone knew they did not need a reason.

The chains were locked on. Sikander was bundled out of the cage. The door was closed, and Tariq listened to the staccato jangle of his friend hopping away between the guards. Only when the far gate slammed shut did he hear how much his heart pounded. Someone — it sounded like old Hazrat — drily coughed.

Perhaps they were just taking him to the pens for exercise, Tariq thought. Captives were often hauled out there in the middle of the night and expected to kick the soccer ball around in the damp, illuminated dark.

But Sikander was not brought back while Tariq lay awake, and he was not in his cage when Tariq awoke again from unsettling dreams in the quiet before dawn.

Instead of falling back asleep, Tariq found himself stumbling through memories he usually fought not to revisit: the hot orange zippered suits and the hoods, the long, sightless plane flight; the shackles and heavy chains that had left his wrists and ankles bleeding, the kicking and shoving, the occasional blows with gunbutts and fists, leaving him flinching in anticipation. The days of total darkness, his hands tied painfully high between his shoulder blades, his knees bound to his chest, with almost no food or water, until he thought they meant to kill him through deprivation. The nights of bright lights and loud music, the long nights of little sleep. Being stripped naked and left to burn in the sun or to bake in a box or to curl up shivering on a hard floor — thirsty, hungry, and exhausted to the point he sometimes wished he would die. Those interrogators, the young Americans who were more disturbing than all the uniforms because they wore none, appearing instead in short-sleeved shirts and shorts, baseball caps and sunglasses, and who through the interpreter browbeat Tariq with incessant questions he could not answer: Who was your commander? What was your mission? Who recruited you? If you really know nothing, why would we waste our time with you? Why would you be here?

Sikander’s cage remained empty through the first call to prayer that morning. As Tariq stood staring afterward at the empty cot, Hazrat whispered to him from its far side.

“I warned you about the talking.”

“Quiet, old man,” snapped Tariq hoarsely, “or maybe they will come for you.”

“Do not fear for your friend,” Hazrat said a moment later. “God is watching him.”

“But God will not lift his hand to protect us,” answered Tariq. “God will not save him from the worst.”

“If the worst happens, he will go to God,” said Hazrat. “And God is just.”

“God is not here,” said Tariq. “God has abandoned us.”

“Do not jeopardize your own soul with blasphemy.”

The exchange ended when the guards entered the corridor with the breakfast trolley. Then, after mush and an apple and tepid tea, Tariq heard the familiar sounds of a prisoner being escorted in. He surreptitiously looked on as Sikander’s cage was opened, and the captive hustled inside and unshackled. For a horrified moment he thought the Americans had done something unspeakable to Sikander, who was unrecognizable. When the guards left, however, and the man writhed on the cot, Tariq soon realized that the face belonged to someone else. What he had taken to be a shadow discoloring the man’s brow resolved itself into a fist-sized bruise. The newcomer curled up on the cot.

Tariq realized Sikander was not coming back.

Not until the next call to prayer did the man rouse. As Tariq cursorily performed ghusl, he noticed the newcomer washing as well before dropping to the floor. After prayer the man turned briefly in his direction, and Tariq saw that despite the washing fresh blood trickled down his mustache and beard, traceable to one nostril. Light hit the man’s eyes, and Tariq could not help flinching when he saw that the one beneath the brown bruise was blood red.

The man consumed the lunch of lentil stew hungrily but hesitantly, as though learning to eat. It occurred to Tariq then that the stories were true, and that the hunger strike had indeed been broken. The weeks of protest had changed nothing.

For most of the day, the new inhabitant of Sikander’s cage merely sat on the cot or stood staring through the mesh door toward the cage of the muttering madman. He said nothing, and Tariq said nothing to him. Instead, during a time when the guards had left the wing, Rashid the Pakistani told Tariq once more about his bad heart and about how much he missed his wife and children. During that afternoon both Hazrat and Nas were led away in chains, to be returned soon with the dust of the exercise pens on their white pants.

When another humid night had fallen, Tariq stared for a while into the next cage, at the silent man whose entire body periodically twitched on the shelf. Someone was snoring; someone was mumbling in prayer or in sleep. Tariq wondered if Sikander were among strangers, or near someone they knew, like the boy Feroz. He prayed he was not in the camp with the trailers, to be tormented by unanswerable questions and left naked in cold, dark rooms. He wondered how long it would be before chance once more brought them together. The last interval had been months.

Rain tentatively tapped on the roof overhead before bursting into a muffled roar. There was the distant sound of gates rattling shut.

“It is time to continue the story,” Tariq murmured to himself. He took a deep breath. “When the spell of darkness was finally lifted, and the two young warriors could look around them, they saw that they had been transported across strange seas to a distant land where the demons ruled. There they were locked up in a fortress built entirely of blades. Yes, the walls, the halls, even the chairs and beds — all were made of swords and knives, so that everywhere they turned they faced the sharp edges of pain and possible death, and there was no escape. Sikander and Tariq found themselves imprisoned with many warrior brothers who had also been swept up by the demons. Also, the fortress was guarded by dayoos who never needed sleep, and who had eyes all over their bodies that never closed. But that was not the worst –”

“Inside the demon fortress, the dayoo guards tormented their prisoners day and night. ‘What do you want?’ Tariq and Sikander would ask them, and the dayoos would reply in riddles: ‘We want you to tell us what you don’t know.’ ‘But how can we tell you what we don’t know?’ answered Tariq and Sikander. In reply the dayoos stripped them and tied them up and threw them into lightless, stone-hard rooms, and left them without food or drink to lie in their own filth, or threatened to drown them or kill them in even worse ways. This lasted for weeks, weeks that seemed like months.

“Sometimes Tariq wondered if they had been carried to Hell. Hell would have to be just like this. When he could think of no sin they had committed that would justify this punishment, he began to wonder how a merciful God could let such things happen. He wondered if God were paying attention at all to the world of men. Perhaps he had abandoned them all to the demons and dayoos. If God were so just and all-powerful, Tariq asked himself, how could this place exist at all? How could God exist?”

He stared at the steel and cement overhead.

“At such times, when all else failed him, all that kept him alive was his badal — the duty laid on him by the Pakhtunwali, the honor code of his people: he would survive long enough to avenge these torments. Some day, he vowed, he would get back at the enemy, even if it meant his own death. There would be blood for blood.

“He did not yet know exactly how he would achieve his revenge. But he knew he could not rest until he had — for his friend Sikander, and for his family back home, and not least for all the lost years of his life and for all the pains and humiliations he had suffered . . . .”

Tariq choked, eyes burning. He asked again what he had done to deserve this fate. But he knew there would be no answer.

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