Wide, crimson eyes scanned the horizon, looking for any hint of movement in the rapidly dimming dusk. Masrur, though still very young, had the best senses out of any of the rest of the group he traveled with. After several minutes of silent searching, a flicker of something caught his eye far off in the distance, near a copse of trees that were the sparse beginning to a thick, noisy forest just beyond. Masrur narrowed his eyes, recognizing the movement as a small group of deer moving about just behind the tree line. He nearly began to run toward them, mouth watering at the thought of venison over the fire that night—but before he could take a full step, he hesitated.
Loathe though he was to take his eyes from the deer, he glanced tentatively toward the tents set up for camp some ways away. Last time he had run off without a word, Ja’far had nearly had a heart attack, and gave him the scolding of a lifetime on his return. Though harsh words were hardly the most terrible punishment he’d endured in his lifetime—he was a slave up until a few months ago, after all—something about the fact that it came from Ja’far made his insides cold, made him want to never disappoint the girl who seemed to genuinely care about him. Even though Sinbad was the one who helped him escape his captors directly, he felt more comfortable around Ja’far’s gentle touch and warm smiles.
Decision made, Masrur walked quickly back to camp, intent on telling Ja’far of his plan to catch dinner and bring it back. The sun had disappeared below the horizon by the time he set foot just inside of camp, the fire crackling happily while Mystras jabbed at Hinahoho’s side, earning a laugh from them both. To the side, he saw the flap to Ja’far’s tent open, and a silhouette slip out before disappearing behind and out into the darkness just beyond camp. Concerned, Masrur moved forward, ignoring the raucous laughter and moving quickly to enter Ja’far’s tent. There was one lantern lit, but it was damp and hot and smelled of sweat and—
Ja’far jumped, and had only a blanket pulled up over her front, a dark flush on her face that even the flickering, uneven light of the lantern couldn’t hide. Masrur blinked, confused as to why Ja’far was disrobing so early in the evening.
“M-Masrur…what…what do you need?”
“Who was just in here?” he asked, ignoring Ja’far’s question. “I saw someone leaving.”
Ja’far blanched, her lips pursing. “Does it matter? Masrur, I’m in the middle of getting dressed. Would you mind waiting outside?”
Masrur narrowed his eyes, but couldn’t deny her request. He nodded, stepping backwards and out of the tent, to look toward the fire where Sinbad was now entertaining the other two with some great tale that may or may not have happened as he told it, his arms giving grand gestures to the side as he bellowed out a laugh.
Sinbad was just in Ja’far’s tent, Masrur thought, the scent impossible to mistake even with the fire roaring only yards away. Crimson eyes narrowed as Masrur considered the implications of such a situation.
Ja’far’s tent opened and she emerged in a fresh tunic, her face still slightly flushed as she looked down to Masrur’s frown.
“Are you hungry, Masrur? I think Hinahoho was going to start something…” she trailed off, not quite meeting his intense gaze.
“…Yes,” was the eventual answer. He moved slowly toward the fire, trailing in her footsteps, before he took a seat and glanced away from Sinbad’s dramatic rendition of conquering Baal toward the forest, the longing for venison somewhat soured by the thought of Sinbad in Ja’far’s bed—and besides…those deer were long gone by now.
He had to do something about this.
Sinbad and his band of followers had been traveling for weeks looking for more trade alliances through the various countries on the continent, and it was quite obvious by the smell; fresh water for baths and cleaning clothing was sparse, so when they came across a small oasis tucked between hills, there was a collective sigh of relief.
“Ladies first,” Sinbad smiled, making a grand, sweeping gesture from Ja’far toward the pool of crystalline water that was replenished from a small waterfall some ten feet above.
Ja’far raised her eyebrows but acquiesced, leaving the camp building to the rest of her companions as she made her way over to the spring. There was enough foliage to cover her undressing, and to give her privacy while she bathed, but even still Masrur caught Sinbad give longing glances in her direction. He kept Sinbad in the corner of his red gaze, and noticed immediately when he thought he was being stealthy and slipping away.
“Sin,” Masrur said, quiet as he usually was but making sure his voice carried.
Sinbad froze, turning to meet the gaze of his fellow travelers as they all looked up from their tasks.
“Isn’t Ja’far still using the spring?” Masrur asked innocently, though it got the reaction he was hoping for from the others. Mystras looked appalled, and Hinahoho narrowed his eyes, stomping over to where Sinbad still stood half-facing the spring, and grabbed him by the shoulders to move him bodily back toward the tents, crossing his arms over his chest as Sinbad drooped and continued work on ensuring they had shelter for the night.
Sinbad threw a glance his way, though Masrur simply stared back in return, blinking slowly. He believed in Sinbad, and would follow the man anywhere he decided he wanted to lead them, but there was no doubt that their leader had quite a reputation when it came to women. Ja’far was like a big sister, or the mother Masrur couldn’t rightly remember; she protected him, and in return he would protect her in the best way he knew how. In order to keep her heart from breaking when Sinbad ultimately decided to bed another woman, Masrur had to keep them apart as much as he could. And luckily, that was easy enough to orchestrate.
When the sun was heavy on the horizon, the sky bruising blue and black, the watch order was give to Mystras for the night, and the rest retired to their tents to rest. Masrur watched Sinbad climb into his own tent, the flap closing after him. He listened to the man moving about for a few minutes, before he settled and was still. Masrur waited some fifteen minutes before he moved silently from his own tent, crawling over to Ja’far’s to wake her gently.
She jumped, hand on the hilt of a dagger before her vision cleared, and she recognized the boy in front of her.
“Masrur, dear gods above…you scared me,” she whispered, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths. “What’s wrong? Is something happening in camp?” she asked nervously, her eyes twitching from the flap of her tent to the flickering silhouette the fire created on the side.
Masrur shook his head silently, looking down to his feet, feigning unease.
“Masrur? Hey,” she murmured, tilting his head up to meet her gaze with a finger under his chin. “What’s wrong?”
“…Bad dream,” he muttered after a few moments, looking down to the ground once more.
Ja’far’s expression changed as though a switch had been flipped, from tense worry to somewhere between sorrow and comforting.
“Come here,” she murmured, holding her arms out welcomingly. “You can sleep in my tent tonight. There’s no safer place you could be.”
He nodded slowly, settling down beside Ja’far, nestling in close when she pulled him to her; his nose pressed into the crook of her neck and shoulder. She settled quickly, though he knew she was still awake; she was relaxed, but her breathing remained short and even, not the slow, tempered breath of unconsciousness. Masrur closed his eyes and relaxed, letting her believe he had fallen asleep quickly. He felt a hand in his hair, smoothing over it gently, and the motion nearly made him smile.
He heard the flap of her tent open some minutes later, already aware of Sinbad’s nightly routine, now that he’d been paying closer attention; he’d wait for the camp to sleep, sneak from his tent and into Ja’far’s once everyone had settled.
But not tonight.
“Shhh!” Ja’far hushed, as quietly as she could. “He’s had a bad dream. I’ve let him stay the night, so you need to go,” she whispered.
Masrur heard Sinbad sigh loudly, but the flap of the tent closed a moment later, and the footsteps retreated. Ja’far settled down again, smoothing his hair for a few minutes before she let herself doze, her chest rising more slowly with each breath. She couldn’t have seen the small upward turn of Masrur’s lips, pressed into her neck as they were.
Sinbad was frustrated.
Every time he wanted to see Ja’far—and not just for intimacy, mind—Masrur was there, standing just behind her or pressed into her side.
First it was just overnight while they slept (did he have nightmares every night now?), but then it became every time they stopped for rest or food, and even when it was his turn for watch, Masrur was always within eyesight of Ja’far’s tent.
Sinbad might have chalked it up to Masrur needing some kind of mother figure in his life, but every time he was caught moving toward Ja’far, Masrur turned and stared with what he could have sworn was a smug stare—or as close to smug as the boy’s face could be. Truly, Sinbad held no grudge against the kid, but his constant presence was more than a bit infuriating after about a week of this behavior.
“Alright,” Sinbad grunted, crossing his arms in front of his chest as he stood before Masrur. He’d been able to catch him going to the river for a bath, the first time he’d been out of earshot of Ja’far in some time. “It’s time you told me what’s going on.”
Masrur looked up, his face blank.
“Don’t give me that. You’ve been dogging Ja’far’s every step for the past week or more. Don’t you think she’s getting tired of it?”
Masrur blinked. “No.”
Sinbad’s brow furrowed, unable to refute such a blunt—and correct—response. “Well, why are you following her around so much? Is she in danger?”
“Oh really? Some danger that nobody else in camp can see but you? Do tell.”
Masrur narrowed his eyes crossing his arms over his chest to mirror Sinbad’s posture. “She deserves better than you.”
Sinbad wasn’t sure what his face was doing, but the boy’s response was…not what he expected.
“You mess around with any woman you please, and move on to the next when you get bored. Ja’far loves you. You’ll break her heart.”
Sinbad could only stare as Masrur turned away and moved into the river, his soft words full of clear warning. After a few minutes, he slowly turned back to camp, passing Hinahoho to find Ja’far tending the stew that would be that evening’s supper. He grabbed her arm, pulling her away from the smell of onions and potatoes to face him.
“Sin—I’m busy, what are you—“
“I don’t take you for granted, do I?” he interrupted quietly, putting a hand to the side of her face.
“You…what? Where is this coming from?” she asked, lifting a hand up to touch the back of his.
“You’ll always be the most important to me…okay? Don’t forget.” He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the corner of her lips, grabbing one of her hands to squeeze before he moved away, intent on thinking for a while in his tent.
Ja’far stood next to the pot that held their supper, cheeks flushed and a small smile creeping into her expression as she turned back to stir, humming a quiet melody as she worked.
Masrur glanced in the direction of their camp, sighing. Fanalis hearing truly was legendary, and he knew he could keep his distance now.
Fifteen Years Later
Masrur glanced over to the open doorway to his side, voices echoing loudly through the palace archives…and through the throne room…and the parliamentary offices…out to the copse of trees he currently sat beneath, pressing his fingers gently against the head of a large tropical red bird perched on his arm.
Not two minutes later, and he heard footsteps march away, and a door slam. Crimson eyes rolled toward the sky, and a deep sigh left his lungs. Sinbad, though he was king of an entire nation and had been for some years now, was in some ways the same person he’d been when Masrur was a boy. No doubt he’d go crawling back to Ja’far to beg her forgiveness later in the night, scratching at the door to her rooms and whining until she relented.
A reminder of the words he spoke so many years ago would do the king some good. Guard duty was one of the things Masrur was best at, after all; from slavers or mercenaries or even from kings, Ja’far would be safe. The corner of his mouth turned up at the thought.