Disclaimer: This story is not historical. I have taken influences from Middle Eastern geography, dress, and customs, but many of the details are made-up. The idea of the "bhanak" is actually based on the Ottoman Empire's Kapikulu, a personal slave army started by Murad in the 14th century, which I learned about in my Islamic art class. The Mulli Empire is loosely based upon what I learned of the Ottoman Empire. Their religion is not Islam, but of course it is similar because so much of Islam has affected Middle Eastern customs and traditions (such as their mosques). Despite the fact that it's not Islam, I will use "caliph" and "sultan", even though the caliphate are technically the descendants of Muhammad. I do not proclaim to have thorough knowledge of anything beyond my imagination, however, for all you history buffs out there.

Second Disclaimer: The characters start out as seventeen and eleven. Absolutely nothing sexual of nature happens to these characters when they are under the age of 18.

Critique is welcome!

As always, there is occasional artwork on my DA profile (pseudocide335) and my Tumblr (wandarox). This story has been fun to draw.

Chapter One: Bread

"Seventeen and headstrong" were very accurate words to call Raheed, though only Elder Hassad said such with any affection. Raheed's skill, quick wit, and bravery were considered perfect for soldiering, but his curiosity and independence were hindrances at best. However, Raheed was bought and trained to be a soldier—it was the only thing he would ever be. So he was told to work on his flaws and embrace his talents. He did more of the latter and very little of the former.

Raheed went to the market when expressly told not to. He had not expected the scorn that greeted him, the glares and the hidden whispers. They spoke a form of Aillic that Raheed did not understand, but their dialects had some similar words, so he did as well as he could. He was not a shy person, so even when some of the shopkeepers frowned and charged him more for their goods than others, he did his best to charm them. His superiors were always reminding them that they represented the empire, so Raheed thought it best if he show the empire's compassionate, human side. Even if it didn't have much of one.

"Three immas," said a heavily veiled woman selling pomegranates.

"Two," Raheed countered. It didn't matter much to him. Things were much cheaper here than they were in Ayllamal, even when he was overcharged.

The woman's face was partially obscured, but he could tell she was glaring at him. Finally with a huff she nodded and handed him a fruit. He accepted the gift with a smile and a nod.


He turned and found Jhali approaching him.

"What?" he asked as Jhali threw an arm around his neck and tugged Raheed to his side. Jhali's eyes were full of mischief.

"Tonight we are going down to the tavern. You should come with."

"What tav—" Raheed paused and threw a doubtful glance at his friend. "I already told you no."

"Oh, come on, Raheed!" Jhali replied with a laugh, raising a hand to ruffle Raheed's hair. "You are old enough. Don't you want to be a man at last?"

Raheed frowned. "Jhali . . ."

"What else will you be doing?"

Raheed shrugged as he pulled his dirk from his belt and attempted to carve into the pomegranate. "Sergeant Azim is always calling me stupid. Perhaps I will read to ameliorate that."

Jhali rolled his eyes, then paused to consider some roasted mutton. The man who cooked the meat over an open fire pit seemed rather hostile to Jhali's presence, but said nothing and accepted Jhali's money. In the meantime, a flash of movement in the corner of his eye caught Raheed's attention.

There were several donkey carts parked along the tall, baked clay walls that were prevalent in the area. Behind them stood a young boy, looking sheepish as he eyed the mutton. Face dirty and clothing soiled, it was clear the boy was either orphaned or cursed with some devastating family circumstances. Raheed had experienced intense hunger before—every soldier of the empire did, especially crossing the Red Desert—but he had never seen it so clear in a boy's eyes. He looked tentative as well, throwing nervous glances at Raheed and Jhali. Raheed could not blame him, as Raheed and Jhali, though mere privates, were decked out in traditional Mulli Empire military garb, robes far more elaborate than anyone but a wealthy man in this part of the world could afford. Not to mention the steel scimitars tied to their belts. It was probably enough to make any beggar wary, even the old wizened kind.

Raheed turned to the boy and smiled, tipping his head pleasantly. The boy ducked down and hid behind a donkey cart, vanishing from view.

"I don't think it's that good, really," Jhali grumbled as he chewed on his mutton. "Overcooked. Mutton is better in Ayllamal."

"All food is better in Ayllamal," Raheed said distractedly, still straining his neck to see the boy.

"What are you looking for?"

Raheed sighed. "Oh, nothing I suppose."

Night crawled across the sky like a glittering mist, bringing relief to the burned soles of the beggar boy's feet. Many people seemed to avoid the night, but the boy liked it best. It made travel easier.

He waited by the donkey carts until the man who cooked the mutton packed up and stepped back inside his small hovel, where his skinny young wife would probably be waiting for him. They seemed to alternate watching the fire pit, though the boy liked it best when the husband watched over commerce. He was clumsy, so sometimes he would drop scraps.

The boy was leaning over the fire pit picking out bits of charred meat when light flooded his feet. He looked up to find the husband standing over him swinging a broom fiercely above his head. It landed twice on either side of the boy's shoulders before the boy was able to scramble away. At first he thought he had escaped, but then the broom handle landed on him again, this time striking so painfully that the boy fell to his knees, scraping the skin against the cobblestone. He tried to stand, but the man had a fistful of his hair now, holding him down so that he could land several blows across the boy's ribs and back.

Suddenly, the punches stopped. The boy rolled over and found his attacker sprawled on the ground in a similar fashion, glaring up at whatever dark figure stood between him and his prey. The boy crawled under the donkey cart and watched through the spokes of the wheel. The man climbed to a stand, his face red with anger, his mouth moving frantically, his shoulders tense. He terrified the boy, but the stranger who stood beside the donkey cart now was not easily intimidated. The boy could not see him well from here, especially in the dark, but the boy didn't stay long enough to find out. He pulled himself out from underneath the cart and started to run in the opposite direction.

He ran until he reached the edge of town, which did not take long in a place so small. All that lay in the horizon now were the stars and the silhouettes of a camel herd grazing on shrubs. If he kept running, he knew he'd reach the fort where the empire soldiers were stationed. He knew to never go there.

Something grabbed him from behind. He swung around and clawed at his captor, but he wasn't up against the usual ill-fed peasant. Before he could struggle for long, he was pinned to the rocky earth, a knee on his back and a grip keeping his hands twisted behind his back.

There was a long pause. His captor might be trying to say something but of course the boy wouldn't understand him even if they shared the same language. So he twisted and pulled, only to be flipped over.

It was the soldier from the marketplace this afternoon, the one with the unruly curls and the pomegranate. The boy hated the soldiers. He hated the villagers as well, but the soldiers were cruel and strange, so he avoided them at all costs. They had beaten him for begging before, as if they were rulers in this land. The boy knew enough to realize that they were only invaders, unwelcome. No one wanted them here.

There was a bright moon tonight, so it was relatively easy to see the soldier's features. He was younger than most of them, probably not even eighteen. His beard was only half-formed, but the boy knew that empire soldiers always had beards. Each rank had a different kind, so the boy figured it had something to do with that. It was one of the many ways to tell the difference between an empire soldier and a villager. The men in his village shaved their facial hair.

The soldier was saying something to him, but the boy just glared. All he could do was wait for his punishment.

"You don't understand a word I say, do you?" Raheed said helplessly, then sighed. What was he even doing? Why had he tackled some poor beggar boy? Perhaps because Raheed couldn't stand being feared, which would strike his fellow soldiers as hilarious. A soldier who didn't like being feared, how extraordinary!

Raheed didn't mind terrifying enemies. Terrifying what looked to be a ten-year-old orphan boy was another thing.

Slowly, Raheed stood, releasing the boy. The boy moved to dart away, but Raheed grabbed the front of his tunic to stop him. Right before the boy clawed at him again, Raheed reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of bread. That was why he had returned in the first place: to feed the beggar.

The boy stared at the bread, the fight draining from him instantly. Despite this, his cautious nature never wavered, so the boy kept his eyes on Raheed as he slowly reached out to take the bread.

"It's not poisonous," Raheed said stupidly, as if the boy could understand.

Once the boy took the bread, it disappeared into his mouth instantly. When Raheed released the boy's tunic, the boy took off at a sprint, somehow avoiding prickly shrubs in his bare feet. Within moments, the boy had vanished.

A camel in the distance bellowed as a cool breeze pulled at Raheed's heavy robes. Sighing, he began his long walk back to the fort.

Raheed could remember bits and pieces about his mother, as well as his homeland's tongue. Most of his fellow soldiers could recall the same. Raheed had taken to reacquainting himself with the language with a few other of the men in the camp who spoke it, though most were hesitant to engage him. It was an unspoken truth in the military: the past was best left in the past. The empire had fed them, trained them, taught them, gave them a soft bed to sleep and comrades to rely upon. While some others considered them slaves, Raheed had never seen it that way. Instead, he was more likely to speak ill of his mother, who had sold him to pay family debts. Perhaps she had been thinking of his best interests; after all, he had been taken care of, even given that coveted education few people outside of high Mulli society could receive. But he held onto resentment because he did not remember her enough to feel love or betrayal.

Perhaps this was why Raheed thought of the orphan the next day as he took breakfast with several friends. Any child without parents shared more in common with Raheed than many might think.

"Where were you last night, Raheed?" asked Kavin, adjusting the cushion on which he sat and taking an inappropriately large sip of his jasmine tea.

Jhali snorted as he blew on his bowl of java beans and lentils. "He wasn't with us, that's for sure."

"Getting into mischief I hope."

Raheed frowned. "Not really."

Habib stepped into the tent, yawning and stretching. "I cannot wait until we are stationed elsewhere. There is nothing in this village worth doing. Unless you enjoy fucking camels."

Kavin laughed as Jhali tossed a cushion at a half-dressed Habib.

"Get yourself decent, you barbarian," Jhali joked. "I will say that some of the women at the whorehouses look like camels though. Can barely bring myself to touch one."

"I'm sure you manage. You always do."

"At least they're cheap." Jhali spooned some beans into his mouth and grinned. "One day I'll be made general and I'll get the most beautiful whores in the world, mark my word."

"Keep up your poor performance and you'll be fucking camels into eternity."

This banter was routine by now, as his companions never wasted an opportunity to spar, be it with wit or swords. It wasn't like there was action to be had elsewhere. Everyone knew that newly inducted soldiers were sent to these outposts for a reason: lack of experience. No one trusted them to conquer anything when some of them couldn't even hold a sword in the right direction. Raheed could, but he'd been a bhanak, a "bought soldier", for much longer than most of these men.

Raheed finished off his tea and bread and stepped out of the tent, wincing at the harsh sunlight that struck him. Of course heat and sunlight were nothing new to him, but both were particularly brutal in these lands, which stood at the very edge of the vast Red Desert.

The arrival of an officer was marked by the sound of hoof beats. Raheed watched with envy and curiosity as the man rode past on a gleaming black stallion, its tack draped with tassels and embroidery. While Jhali looked forward to beautiful whores in his future, Raheed yearned for a horse of his own. He knew how to ride them—every bhanak was taught horseback riding—but only men of high status could own them. It was one of the few things any man of the military could own, so they were understandably treasured.

Raheed hoped that the officer might bring news of some action, but the day progressed as always. There was nothing much to do beyond basic chores and a few training sessions. After noon, the heat was too intense to do much more than sleep, so that was what most of the soldiers did. Jhali shared his exploits with whores the night before, tales that struck Raheed as somewhat arousing. He tried to ignore it, still somewhat bitter at Mulli laws, which forbid land ownership or marriage for any man who did not have a paternal family name. As most soldiers were bhanak who surrendered all family titles upon purchase, very few of them had anything but whores to look forward to. Raheed knew he'd have to give in eventually. He just hoped it would be with a girl who didn't resemble a camel.

When the heat began to abate, Raheed went back to the town, another small piece of bread tied in a canvas bag he carried under his robes. There weren't many people in the village; maybe he'd see the beggar boy again.

Raheed assumed he'd have to search, but a scene in the market revealed the orphan boy immediately. The boy in question was huddled on the ground with his arms over his head as two children, one the boy's age and another younger, pelted him with stones. Nearby their mother stood, watching calmly. It appeared that the violence occurred with her approval.

For a moment Raheed wondered if he could intervene, then decided that he was a soldier of the Mulli empire, which now encompassed this small territory. Of course he had the authority! And no one else had a sword, so who would stop him?
"What you doing?" Raheed asked in garbled Aillab, their dialect of Aillic.

The woman glared at him. "Possessed by the devil."

"What?" Raheed asked. Despite being raised and mentored by Elder Hassad, a cleric, Raheed himself was not very religious. "Get away from him!"

The children took one look at him and bolted. Townspeople learned quickly not to interfere with Mulli soldiers.

"You too," Raheed growled. "Go."

"Demon child," the woman hissed at the beggar boy. "Be gone!"

"Leave us," Raheed ordered, pulling himself to his full height. He was young, but he was already bigger than most of the village folk.

The woman shuffled away, grumbling under her breath. Raheed approached the boy, who jumped up and looked prepared to run. Raheed instantly pulled out the bread and offered it to him, though he couldn't ignore the rivulets of blood that ran down the boy's arm and cheek. His eyes were wide and terrified.

"Want some?" Raheed asked.

The boy, much like a stray dog, crept forward and darted out to grab the bread. He moved as if to run away, then paused and looked over his shoulder at Raheed. Raheed pulled his robes around him, concealing his scimitar.

"You don't look like a demon child." Raheed paused and attempted to speak Aillab. "What's your name?"

The boy just stared at him, though his eyes lowered briefly to Raheed's mouth, his brow folding in confusion.

"What's your name?" Raheed repeated, this time slower, wondering if he was saying it correctly.

The boy seemed to comprehend this time, but he only shrugged.

"You don't have a name?" Raheed frowned. "Why not?"

The boy continued to stare.

Maybe he was dim-witted. Considering the average intelligence of these village people, it wouldn't be unusual. Raheed peered closer, deciding that there was intelligence in his eyes, but it was mostly hidden by fear and confusion.

Raheed sighed and watched the boy finish off his bread. What was Raheed doing? Was his ennui so intense that he'd taken to engaging dumb beggar boys in one-sided conversations? This was not included in his soldier's duties. But even if it had, he supposed he couldn't have argued against it.

"I wonder why people think you're posessed," Raheed wondered out loud.
"I know they can be simpletons, but you seem relatively harmless to me."

The boy didn't seem fazed by Raheed's speaking. He didn't even look up from his bread consumption.

"I don't suppose you can conjure any spells then? It would be mighty interesting if you could . . ." Raheed trailed off, then sighed. "I'm talking to myself, aren't I?"

The boy smacked his lips and held out his hand, palm up. More bread.

"I don't have any more," Raheed said with a shake of his head.

The boy frowned, pulling his hand back. He paused, as if considering taking off again, but then he bowed his head slightly and made a sound deep in his throat. Raheed had not clue what it meant, but he nodded at the boy in acknowledgment of the gesture. After a small smile touched the boy's mouth, the boy ran off, his bare feet navigating the hot cobblestone with the dexterity of a gazelle.

It didn't take long before the boy was stalking Raheed. It seemed like every time he stepped through the town gates, Raheed was greeted almost immediately by the beggar boy, the boy's hand outstretched and his eyes plaintive. Raheed stopped bringing bread in hopes the boy would go away, but the boy still followed him, albeit at a distance. His shadow was so constant that Raheed's fellow soldiers began to notice and question it.

"Who's the runt?" Habib asked, jerking a thumb behind them. Raheed turned and found the beggar boy ducking behind a wall.

"Raheed has an admirer, how cute," Jhali crooned, lips puckered.

"He's a ten-year-old boy, so no."

"Maybe he thinks you're his mother."

"You should wrap him in a blanket and sing him to sleep."

Raheed frowned. "Shut up, both of you. I think he's wrong in the head."

"Something you have in common then!" Habib exclaimed with a chuckle, patting Raheed on the back.

"You can't talk."

"Hmm." Jhali stopped, grabbing Raheed's sleeve to stop him as well. "Do you think you could get him to do something for me?"
"Jhali . . ."
"Nothing much, really. Just a little test." Jhali crooked a finger at the boy, whose eyes could be seen peering from around a corner. "Come here, boy!"

Raheed shoved Jhali lightly. "Just leave it."

But the boy was already approaching, looking both sheepish and stubborn at once. His fists were clenched at his sides as he came forward, shoulders hunched and head bowed. He stopped meekly before Jhali who, as one of the tallest and most powerful boys for his age, clearly intimidated him.

"See that stall over there selling figs?" Jhali pointed to a nearby stall. The boy's gaze followed his finger. "Can you take one for me?"
"Jhali," Raheed said firmly. Jhali waved him away dismissively.

"I'm sure you've stolen things before, being a beggar boy and all. Look, the woman's not even looking. It would be easy. And if the woman complains, we'll protect you. People here have to respect us empire soldiers."

The boy looked between the stall and Jhali. Finally his eyes moved to Raheed, as if asking for confirmation. Raheed looked away. He was not the boy's father, friend, or mentor. If the boy wanted to steal a fig for some stupid dare, that was his own responsibility.

"You understand me?" Jhali asked. His Aillab was much better than Raheed's. "You steal a fig. For me." Jhali dug into his robes and then pulled out a single copper coin. Coins were a novelty this far from the empire, as trade remained the primary method of payment. As much as the people here pretended to resent Mulli presence, they sure did love Mulli money. In Ayllamal, a copper coin would buy a bracelet or trinket. Here, it could buy you an entire bag of figs. "I'll give you this if you do."

Habib had gone silent, waiting for the boy's reaction with a smug smile. Jhali raised his eyebrows, a challenge.

The boy looked between the coin and the stall, then back again. Then he slunk away, slowly moving closer to the stall as the shopkeeper turned to the goat she had tied nearby.

"He's actually doing it," Habib chuckled. "I can't believe it."

"Khafans are known for being simpletons," Jhali replied in a low voice. "They are impressed by any mark of higher culture, be it literacy or a silly copper coin."

"Shh, shh, look," Habib hissed, pointing as he ducked behind Jhali. "Look."

Quick as a hare, the boy's hand darted out and snatched up a fig. For a moment Raheed thought he'd get away with it, as the shopkeeper was still facing the other way. But there was suddenly a shout from another stall and a heavyset white-haired man charged forward, his cane already raised for the blow.

"Shit," Jhali barked, pulling Raheed and Habib backward. "Let's get out of here."

Raheed tried to escape Jhali's grip, but Jhali was strong and determined. By the time Raheed was able to shake him off, they were already around the corner and headed for the town gate.

"Jhali! You said you'd protect him!"

"Are you kidding me? And get in trouble with the sergeant?" Jhali snatched up a handful of Raheed's robes, hauling him forward. "Not for an idiotic Khafan."

Raheed paused but decided to follow them. Perhaps now the boy would stop following him like an annoying dog.

Raheed never should have shared that bread.

Note: I deleted this story the first time I posted it because the reception was poor. If you'd like to keep reading this, please let me know or I will probably take it down again. I just don't want to worry about updating and all that if no one is going to read it. Thank you.