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"I am Haroun al-Rashid. That man is an imposter." He narrowed his eyes. "And I don't know who you are."

Icy sweat drenched Arram. Before he could reply the slave put a sack over his head, and he was dragged away.

His heart sank. He had no idea what was going on, but he was sure he knew what was going to happen next. He consoled himself that at least he wouldn't have to live for very long after they cut his manhood off, as they would almost certainly chop his head off too.

The slave pushed him and they walked, Arram sometimes stumbling because he couldn't see his own feet. After a while the bag was removed , and he blinked and looked around. He expected to see a dungeon or a torture chamber, but instead he was in a lavish banquet hall. The table in front of him overflowed with savory foods, and the true caliph sat eating a stuffed hen. He pointed to an empty chair.

"Have a seat, boy. Eat something."

Arram paused, unsure what to do, then sat down and began grabbing everything he could reach. After all, he reasoned, there'd be no good eating where he was going next. The caliph watched, seemingly amused, as Arram stuffed his mouth full of candied plums and then tried to eat an entire lamb kebab in two bites.

"When you're finished trying to swallow the mpire, perhaps you would do your caliph the honor of telling him who you are, and how you came to be in his private harem, in the middle of the night, during the holy month of Ramadan?"

Arram swallowed. The caliph seemed to look through him, and he squirmed. Wiping his mouth and fingers on a cloth, Arram began to tell the story, haltingly at first, of everything that had happened since leaving home. Haroun al-Rashid watched him, saying nothing, now and then nibbling a bite of something. When he was finished the caliph did not say anything for some time. All he did was glare, and Arram wished that they would get on with his execution, because he hated all this waiting.

Then he saw the caliph's face twitch. His mouth drew up in a small smile. His shoulders began to shake, and then he was roaring with laughter. Arram sat back, stunned.

"Marvelous!" said the caliph. "Simply marvelous. I would never believe it had I not seen the issue of your misadventures with my own eyes."

And he laughed and laughed, and soon Arram was laughing too, mostly from relief. The caliph called for a scribe and had Arram repeat his story so that it could be recorded, and he and Arram talked and ate and drank and told stories the rest of the night through.

As dawn approached the caliph looked out the window at the city. He rubbed the rings on his fingers, as though unused to the feeling of them. "Well Arram, the morning is almost here. In truth, I should have you put to death; the law says that I should. But it is Ramadan, and a higher law commands that I be merciful. So as payment for your wonderful story, I will set you free at dawn."

Arram's heart soared.

"And since it is the holy month I will even give you a gift. What do you want more than anything in the world, Arram of Sicily? Tell me, and it's yours."

Arram cleared his throat. "Begging your pardon, your worship..."

"Yes?" The caliph looked at him, unblinking.

"In truth, all I really want is to hear another story. I would like to know, who was that man who impersonated you, and how is it that he can enter your sacred palace with such ease?"

The caliph looked pained and Arram feared that his fortunes were about to change yet again, but then the caliph sat, and sighed, and began to speak:

"Know this, young Arram; that though I am renowned throughout the world for my wisdom, even I, Haroun-al Rashid, can be quite foolish. Three years ago, during the holy month, I was out walking the night in disguise, and I met a simple weaver named Abu al-Hassan. I talked with this man and heard him exclaim that if he could live for but three days as the caliph lives that he could enter paradise without regrets, knowing that he had tasted the best of this life.

"It being Ramadan, I thought that to grant his wish would be a great gift, so I had my bodyguard, Masrur, follow him to his home, and in the night, as he slept, I had him carried to my palace, very gently, so as not to wake him. He was dressed in my best clothes and put into my bed, and assigned a cadre of slaves and servants and new concubines to attend him.

"When he awoke he was amazed and thought that some jinni must have put him under a spell, for wherever he went in the palace people bowed to him and called him the caliph, as I'd told them to, and all the pleasures and luxuries of the world were at his fingertips."

"What did he do?" said Arram.

"At first he refused to believe that anything around him was real, but I had anticipated this. I had the servants tell him that he was the victim of a strange sickness that caused him to forget that he was the caliph and to be tormented by false memories of a life that was not his. They told him that if he but went about his business he would soon regain his wits and remember who he really was.

"Well, Abu al-Hassan took a little convincing, but soon he was living a true life of luxury here in my palace, and it gratified me very much to see this simple man made so happy by the things that I sometimes took for granted."

"But where were you during all of this?"

"I? Why, I disguised myself as a trusted vizier, and helped Abu al-Hassan minister to all matters of state during those three days, to make sure he didn't get in over his head. And at the end of three days I donned my sovereign attire again and went to Abu al-Hassan and explained to him what I'd done and why, and I was prepared to give him money enough to last many years and bestow on him robes of honor and call him my brother.

"But of course, it turned out there was one problem."

"He believed he really was the caliph!" cried Arram.

Haroun al-Rashid nodded. "We did our job of convincing him too well. Even today he believes that he is the true caliph and that I am a usurper, and anytime he gets a little money he buys new clothes and some cheap jewels and goes around proclaiming himself to be Haroun a-Rashid. And of course, many believe him, even here in the palace, because so few have ever seen me with their own eyes."

The caliph stretched a little. The morning sun tinged the windows rosy pink.

"And now you know two marvelous stories, Arram of Sicily, mine and yours. But you cannot recount these stories to anyone, for it is not fit for people to know so much about their supreme ruler. But you are young, and I will soon be old, and someday death, the destroyer of happiness, whom no man, however rich, can bargain away, will come for me, and on that day you will be permitted to tell your story and mine, together, and your story will travel the world and everyone in the empire and beyond will know you. That is my gift to you."

Then the caliph gave him a sack of dinars, more than Arram had ever seen in one place, and bid him come back that night so that they could feast again, and tell more marvelous stories. But Arram was troubled.

"Begging your pardon, but one thing still bothers me?"

The caliph raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"Well, it seems to me that the only reason that Abu al-Hassan can impersonate you so easily is that so few people have ever really met you, and when they do you're usually in disguise."

The caliph said nothing.

"And your palace is so great and you have so many servants and slaves that some of them go years without seeing you, even your wives and concubines."

The caliph played with his ill-fitting rings.

"I guess all that I'm wondering is, how do I know that you're the real caliph at all? What if you're Abu al-Hassan, or some other impostor? How could I tell?"

The caliph said nothing, but his brow darkened and Arram thought, one more time, that perhaps he'd talked his way into a trip to the chopping block. But then the caliph smiled, showing all his teeth, and called for a guard.

"Take this boy to the gates of the city," instructed the caliph, "and expel him. But let him keep this money, and give him a good horse to ride. And tell him that wherever he goes that he should say that he met the caliph of Baghdad."

He leaned in. "The one, true, caliph of Baghdad."

And so it was. And with the money that he received that day Arram made his start as a merchant, and soon became quite wealthy. One year, during the holy month, he returned to Baghdad, shining jewel of cities, and there he met Haroun al-Rashid again, but this time the caliph was neither of the men he'd met as a boy, but a third person entirely, and Arram had no idea whether to believe he was the true caliph at all. Perhaps Arram eventually solved the riddle of the caliph's true identity. But then, perhaps not. That story, and that secret, are not known to us.

And only Allah knows all.

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