Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 14
Once upon a time there lived a Sultan, ruler over a rich land. Wise founder of a thriving city, he would once a year open up his grand palace to accept gifts from his subjects, and to bestow gifts in return.
The first guest was a merchant, robed in garments of fine silk. “I bring a hundredweight of salt, in the hopes that your highness will permit me to continue trade with the nations to the East.”
The Sultan knew the merchant well: he travelled far to earn his coin and was in truth as much an emissary as a trader. “Your gift is received gladly,” he said, “and mine gladly given.”
And so the merchant departed, and the second guest arrived. This man was an artisan, dressed in white linen. “I bring a golden statuette, in the hopes that your highness will remember my work when he has deeds to commemorate or gardens to furnish with pleasing things.”
The Sultan knew the artisan too, for this was the man who had sculpted his likeness for the public square. “Your gift is received gladly,” he said, “and it will be remembered.”
And so the artisan departed, and the third guest arrived.
This man the Sultan did not know. His garments were rough sackcloth, and he carried with him only a small bag of the same material.
“Your highness,” the third guest began, his voice weak with age, “I come in the hopes that you will extend your generosity to the less fortunate, as you do to…”
“Silence!” The Sultan lifted himself from his throne, stung by the audacity of this beggar who had climbed the palace steps. “What talk is this of fortune? What role did fortune play in the founding of my city?”
The Sultan’s guard rushed forward. “Your highness, allow me to—”
“No! This fool must know the gravity of his offence.” The Sultan turned to the beggar. “Do you think me one of those noblemen rich with hand-me-down gold? One of those tyrants who claimed their land with hired steel? I built this city with the sweat of my own brow, in a time when I was as poor a wretch as you.”
The beggar said nothing. The guard opened his mouth, but the Sultan silenced him with one angry motion of his hand.
“I was born in a distant kingdom,” said the Sultan, “an orphan of a vicious war. Before the armies of my people’s foe, I was forced to flee into the desert, to a place of tents and dust. Perhaps once it was a sanctuary, but by the time I arrived the land had been stripped bare, its wealth exhausted. I found only a small camp where a band of tired clerics divided out little food and less water, and I found that I had made my desperate journey for just a crust of bread and a small jar, not half full.”
“Your highness…” began the guard.
“Quiet!” snapped the Sultan. He looked the beggar in the eye and nodded. “There were many beggars in that place. Those who preferred to stay and strain the charity of the clerics than to set out for themselves. But though destitute, I was no beggar. I took what little I was given and set out into the wilderness once more, guided only by the light of the stars.”
The guard stepped forward. The Sultan stopped him with a stare.
“Three days and three nights I walked, a child on a march that would try the mightiest warrior, with barely a meagre meal to sustain me for that great journey. Was it fortune that led me to the heathen ruins, the buried spring? Perhaps, yet I had nothing to gamble but my own life, and it was not a wager any others cared to make.”
“Your noble highness,” said the guard, “I would be remiss if—”
“Kindly let us talk, and stop incessantly interfering, like a nasty little dog!”
Catching sight of the Sultan’s expression, the guard nodded a bow and hurried from the room.
“Perhaps it was fortune that led me to the spring,” the Sultan continued. “However, it was my voice that called the people. My will that raised the stones. My strength that held this land. My vision that brought forth the city from the sands.” He stepped forward to meet the beggar, raising himself to his full height. “This is why I reserve my generosity for great men who bring gifts of their own. Not scrounging beggars who bring nothing. Tell me: why should I grant anything to you?”
The beggar pushed his mouldering cloth bag into the Sultan’s hands. “Because I asked nothing when last we met.”
Without another word, the beggar turned and hobbled from the throne room. Hands trembling, the Sultan opened up the bag.
Inside was a jar of water and a crust of bread.