…a picaresque, swashbuckling adventure, each chapter charmingly illustrated by Gary Gianni…Chabon's highfalutin writing is an object lesson in style perfectly matched to genre…If any good adventure is all about the journey, there is also, as Amram remarks, "an appeal in the idea of seeing some business through from start to finish." And the lark Chabon has in getting there translates into a hoot for the reader. Still, such an arch, lickety-split odyssey won't be everyone's cuppa. The pulp-averse, the history-challenged, the Khazar-illiterate might feel at a disadvantage without a glossary of 10th-century terms. Not every reader will be willing to take all this on literary faith. Nevertheless, if you stick with this tale, you'll be rewarded with a slalom course's worth of twists, not to mention a suitable moral.
The Washington Post
Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his homage to comic-book heroes, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, delights in reinventing genres: the murder mystery in The Final Solution and in his most recent novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and now the all-but-vanished tale of derring-do. The plot and voice of Gentlemen of the Road recall the stories found in 19th-century dime novels and the fantastic escapades invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard. Gary Gianni's drawings highlight particularly thrilling moments, and with chapter titles like "On the Observance of the Fourth Commandment Among Horse Thieves" and "On Swimming to the Library at the Heart of the World," Chabon works old-fashioned niceties into a postmodern pastiche…Gentlemen of the Road is also a revival of the serial, having first appeared in installments in The New York Times Magazine. As might be expected from this sort of storytelling, virtually every chapter introduces a new setting and characters. And although the effect can be dizzying and the plot may twist a time or two too many, it's hard to resist its gathering momentum, not to mention the sheer headlong pleasure of Chabon's language.
The New York Times
The odd bond between the young Frank Zelikman and the older, dark-skinned giant, Amram, serves as the basis for Chabon's short novel about life, war and religion in the 10th century. Wandering along the Silk Road, using both knowledge and trickery to earn their way, they stumble upon Filaq, the displaced heir to the Khazar throne. The two employ their many skills to return Filaq to the throne. Braugher delivers a strong and commanding performance with a lilting rhythm to his voice that is almost hypnotic. His resonating baritone voice proves appealing for the narration. His vocalization of the strong and solemn Amram is perfect, while his lightened tone for Zelikman is also a good match. His female vocalizations aren't nearly as powerful. Chabon reads the afterword, enlightening listeners to the reasons for writing a novel he originally intended to call Jews with Swords. Simultaneous release with the Del Rey hardcover (Reviews, Sept. 9). (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Having tackled alternate history and hard-boiled mystery in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Claynow tries his hand at a historical adventure along the lines of The Arabian Nights. Set in the medieval Jewish empire of the Khazars, this novella, originally published serially in the New York Times Magazine, follows two "gentlemen of the road" who find their fortune wherever they can-and don't mind taking up what seems like a lost cause just for the adventure of it. A lost cause shows up in the form of a secretive young man with a tragic past who is trying to raise an army to avenge the death of his family. Few can resist his powers of persuasion, including our gentlemen adventurers, and the story wraps up with a satisfying twist or three. Chabon says in an afterword that he semiseriously intended to call the story "Jews with Swords" to highlight a little-known aspect of Jewish history. Chabon has a humorous, acrobatic writing style that translates rather well to the adventure genre. Highly recommended for public libraries.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School -Set more than 1000 years ago, this tale of a€œJews with Swordsa€ follows two swindlers, Frankish physician Zelikman and giant African Amram, on their adventures. The young, recently orphaned and dethroned prince known as Filaq is traveling under duress to his grandfathera€™s house with his guardian when they come across Zelikman and Amram. When the guardian is murdered by pursuers, these two endeavor to complete his task and collect the reward for Filaqa€™s safe delivery. The prince is later kidnapped by a usurpera€™s followers, and Amram and Zelikman, along with a cast of soldiers, thieves, religious men, and merchants, set their sights on his rescue and restoration. The Kingdom of Arran and the little-known Khazar Empire, despite the historical distance, ring true, and Chabon clearly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of the region. Giannia€™s illustrations help convey the setting and characters clearly. Through these charactersa€™ travels, the author introduces numerous unfamiliar topics (rabbinates, shatranj, and ancient Middle Eastern politics, to name a few) and leaves readers both satisfied and eager to learn more. Although the vocabulary may challenge some teens, the story moves at a rapid pace and is full of surprises. It is sure to find a wide readership among those with an interest in Jewish history or swashbuckling adventure.-Karen E. Brooks-Reese, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, PA
In his ongoing crusade to reanimate tales of adventure set in days of yore, Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union, 2007, etc.) offers an ebullient yarn that blithely defies probability, while plundering from innumerable semi-literary sources. Originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine (January-May 2007), it's a story that moves from a caravansary in the Caucasus, along the legendary Silk Road traveled by merchants and adventurers, to the royal city Atil, stronghold of the Khazars, but presently occupied by the usurper, Buljan, who had murdered its rightful rulers. We learn all this through the efforts of the eponymous "gentlemen": an Abyssinian soldier of fortune, Amram, and a cadaverous Frankish opportunist, Zelikman, who possesses the skills of an apothecary and the soul of an emotionless killer. Living by their wits (e.g., staging fights to the death and absconding with money wagered by gullible spectators), they encounter a beardless young man, Filaq, who's the only survivor of his family's slaughter by Buljan, and who, after initially mistrusting Zelikman and Amram, enlists them in pursuit of the throne that is rightfully his. Eyebrows will arch at the many twists and turns, (not so surprising) surprises and reversals, as the trio proceed toward Atil, joining forces with an army of (Arsiyah) mercenaries weary from battle with Northern invaders (who appear to be in collusion with the nefarious Buljan), then a family of Jewish (Radanite) traders confident that wholesale slaughter need not interfere with business as usual. Nobody is quite who he seems to be. But the worst villains experience comeuppance, in the gratifying resolution of a complaint voiced by, of all people,Buljan: "There was no hope for an empire that had lost the will to prosecute the grand and awful business of adventure." That might be the voice of Chabon addressing his readers. Ridiculously entertaining. If the movie people don't snap this one up, somebody's asleep at the switch.
As a kid, Michael Chabon must have read books by Alexandre Dumas like other kids his age ate Twinkies -- with one difference: the sugar buzz from The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo didn't dissolve in his bloodstream but fully saturated his impressionable young brain so that years later, even after he'd topped the bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize, Chabon would still get a happy rush of blood-tingle from writing plot-driven adventure stories that arrive on bookshelves like much-needed antidotes to the modern trend of morose, nihilistic, cynical fiction.
Which isn't to say that Chabon's fiction is not occasionally dipped into a bubbling vat of thick, morose prose (just look at the brutal, unforgiving world of his Jewish Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, for instance). He just knows how to ladle the fun with the bleak. For the past seven years, starting with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, he's been reaching back to the early roots of popular American fiction (whose taproots also extend to the Europe of Dumas and Dickens) to deliver novels with plots that tumble forward like a somersaulting gymnast.
The phrases "good old-fashioned ripping yarn" and "they just don't write books like this anymore" spring to mind when talking about this recent renaissance of Michael Chabon. In book after book, he's crossed the slippery boundaries of genre to bring us novels that are the literary equivalents of Saturday matinee serials. In Kavalier and Clay, it was pulp magazines and adventure comics; in Summerland, it was children's literature infused with Narnia and Tolkien; in The Final Solution, it was locked-room detective fiction; and in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, it was film-noir-meets-science-fiction. Chabon has mastered the art of dragging pulp fiction into the 21st century, where we can enjoy it under the buzzing fluorescent lights of postmodernism.
Now comes Gentlemen of the Road, and it's a whiz-bang adventure tale that perfectly distills and bottles the best qualities of Dumas, Indiana Jones, and every buddy-cop movie you've ever seen.
This slim novel, written against an epic-sized background, was originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine and has now been expanded in book form, to include an afterword by Chabon (where he reveals the story's working title was Jews with Swords) and illustrations by Gary Gianni.
As Chabon freely admits, "sword-wielding Jews" sounds like an incongruous paradox in today's society (but then, he adds, so is the phrase "People with Books"). However, when you think about it (and Chabon has done a great deal of thinking about it over the course of his last four novels), the simple definition of "adventure" is what happens every time we cross the threshold of our front door and hit the road of life. For the children of Abraham, Chabon notes, this started the first time God said, "Thou shalt leave home." The Old Testament is nothing if not one big Saturday matinee cliffhanger after another, right? We shouldn't laugh when a Jew picks up a sword (or dons a superhero cape or patrols the noir-dark streets of Alaska). Still, Chabon knew most People with Books might think Jews with Swords was something spawned by Mel Brooks, so he changed the title to something a little more respectable, and a lot more blasé.
Set in the kingdom of Arran (which roughly corresponds to Azerbaijan today) in the year 950, Gentlemen of the Road follows the adventures of two mercenary warriors as they travel along the ancient Silk Road between the Black and Caspian seas. Zelikman is a pale, gaunt hero who is always dressed in black and who loves his hat as much as he does his horse; Amram is a giant African who wields a Viking ax nicknamed "Mother-Defiler." By the time we first meet them, the pair have been getting in and out of scrapes for a long time. They've formed a close bond that goes deeper than any felt by the likes of the Lone Ranger and Tonto or even Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They are brooders who are loyal only to their own cause of independence and making money on a clever flim-flam scheme that cheats fellow travelers out of their gold coins.
"I am not overly encumbered by principle," Zelikman says at one point. "I am a gentleman of the road, an apostate from the faith of my fathers, a renegade, a brigand, a hired blade, a thief." He and his large, muscular companion are each running from ghosts that haunt their pasts -- Zelikman's mother and sister were raped and murdered by marauding bandits, and Amram's daughter was stolen from him 20 years earlier. They are a complex pair of characters, and Chabon makes their pain, suffering, and ultimate bravery the most compelling feature of the novel.
Even though Zelikman and Amram have distanced themselves from the rest of humanity, they're fully aware there's trouble brewing in the kingdom -- rumors of betrayals and assassinations -- and they want no part of it. In short, they are carrying on the proud tradition of reluctant heroes. Indy Jones would be proud to share a flask of wine with them.
All of that changes when they cross paths with Filaq, a freckle-faced youth who claims to be the son of the recently deposed bek, the war king of the Khazars who rule over a Jewish empire which is clashing with Russian warriors from the north. Filaq's family members have been raped, murdered, or sold into slavery, and now the heir to the throne is being pursued by soldiers loyal to the corrupt general at the heart of the Khazarian coup. Amram and Zelikman are still debating whether or not to help Filaq when arrows start flying and they find themselves on the run with the once-and-future king.
Chabon tells this "tale of adventure" with a curious mix of breathless cliffhangers and a dense, meandering style that forces the reader to take it slow and savor a narrative that defiantly echoes that of authors like Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, and Conan creator Robert E. Howard (all of whom Chabon cites as influences in writing Gentlemen of the Road). On the one hand, you have to admire a writer so determined to return us to the Golden Age of Adventure Fiction (whenever that might have been); but along the way, you might find yourself interrupting your enjoyment of Gentlemen of the Road to reach for a dictionary to look up words like "stripling," "gonfalon," or "shatranj."
In the end, those are only speed bumps on this road. After all, while reading The Three Musketeers how many of us do voluminous research on 17th-century French court politics? Chabon is smart enough to make sure the Story remains of prime importance and never lets the vocabulary or the often confusing tapestry of history tangle up the breakneck pace at which he unspools his yarn.
To read Gentlemen of the Road is to savor your time in an armchair where you can be transported to a world full of clanging swordplay, clashing armies, wily horse thieves, vagabond Jewish merchants, exotic prostitutes, heroic elephants, and the sublime devotion to a good hat. If Chabon keeps this up, we'll never have to cross our threshold again to find true adventure. --David Abrams
David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.
From the Publisher
“Chabon… offers an ebullient yarn that blithely defies probability, while plundering from innumerable semi-literary sources… Ridiculously entertaining. If the movie people don’t snap this one up, somebody’s asleep at the switch.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Slyly entertaining. . . . Altogether enjoyable and thought-provoking. . . Chabon . . . is a marvelously gifted writer who brings to his work not only an unself-conscious mastery of technique but also a knowing intelligence born of deep and fearless reading. He has impeccable literary fiction credentials, which give him the street cred to treat genre fiction such as Gentlemen of the Road in the same way he treats all of his books’ characters: with respect but not piety… There’s a great deal of smart and sophisticated enjoyment to be had from Gentlemen of the Road.” — Los Angeles Times
“Gleeful. . . . The plot and voice of Gentlemen of the Road recall the stories found in 19th-century dime novels and the fantastic escapades invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard. Gary Gianni’s drawings highlight particularly thrilling moments, and with chapter titles like “On the Observance of the Fourth Commandment Among Horse Thieves” . . . Chabon works old-fashioned niceties into a postmodern pastiche. The action is intricate and exuberant.” — The New York Times
“It’s tiny but overstuffed, and like a battered piece of antique luggage covered with exotic stickers, it’s more interesting for what it reveals about the owner’s hunger to discover new places than for its actual contents… The snack-sized epic . . . combines Chabon’s keen, inventive approach to questions of Jewish identity, bravery, and displacement with his taste for degraded forms.” — Entertainment Weekly
“Probably the premiere prose stylist — the Updike — of his generation. . . . Chabon is still a literary novelist, but he’s having a hot, star-crossed flirtation with the ‘popular’ genres. He riffs on them, toys with them, steals their best tricks, passes them notes in class, etc. In Gentlemen of the Road . . . he achieves something like consummation. He goes all the way.” — Time
“Extraordinary adventures unfold; there’s bloodshed, violence, pillage and plunder, elephants play a crucial role and nothing is what it seems. Every page holds a twist, while the prose is rich, but perfect in its control and its calibration between the poetic and the exotic. . . . The book has a melancholy heart while its allegorical echoes are at once hard-nosed, wishful and fantastic (and all the more powerful for that). With its allusive glances here at Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, there at Don Quixote, its soaring storytelling and subtle resonances with contemporary history, readers might feel that they have reached the book equivalent of the Promised Land.” — The Times
“This book is full of dry, sophisticated humour.” — Globe and Mail
Read an Excerpt
On Discord Arising from the Excessive Love of a Hat
For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve. Engrossed in the study of a small ivory shatranj board with pieces of ebony and horn, and in the stew of chickpeas, carrots, dried lemons and mutton for which the caravansary was renowned, the African held the place nearest the fire, his broad back to the bird, with a view of the doors and the window with its shutters thrown open to the blue dusk. On this temperate autumn evening in the kingdom of Arran in the eastern foothills of the Caucasus, it was only the two natives of burning jungles, the African and the myna, who sought to warm their bones. The precise origin of the African remained a mystery. In his quilted gray bambakion with its frayed hood, worn over a ragged white tunic, there was a hint of former service in the armies of Byzantium, while the brass eyelets on the straps of his buskins suggested a sojourn in the West. No one had hazarded to discover whether the speech of the known empires, khanates, emirates, hordes and kingdoms was intelligible to him. With his skin that was lustrous as the tarnish on a copper kettle, and his eyes womanly as a camel’s, and his shining pate with its ruff of wool whose silver hue implied a seniority attained only by the most hardened men, and above all with the air of stillness that trumpeted his murderous nature to all but the greenest travelers on this minor spur of the Silk Road, the African appeared neither to invite nor to promise to tolerate questions. Among the travelers at the caravansary there was a moment of admiration, therefore, for the bird’s temerity when it seemed to declare, in its excellent Greek, that the African consumed his food in just the carrion-scarfing way one might expect of the bastard offspring of a bald-pated vulture and a Barbary ape.
For a moment after the insult was hurled, the African went on eating, without looking up from the shatranj board, indeed without seeming to have heard the remark at all. Then, before anyone quite understood that calumny so fine went beyond the powers even of the myna, and that the bird was innocent, this once, of slander, the African reached his left hand into his right buskin and, in a continuous gesture as fluid and unbroken as that by which a falconer looses his fatal darling into the sky, produced a shard of bright Arab steel, its crude hilt swaddled in strips of hide, and sent it hunting across the benches.
Neither the beardless stripling who was sitting just to the right of its victim, nor the one-eyed mahout who was the stripling’s companion, would ever forget the dagger’s keening as it stung the air. With the sound of a letter being sliced open by an impatient hand, it tore through the crown of the wide-brimmed black hat worn by the victim, a fair-haired scarecrow from some fogbound land who had ridden in, that afternoon, on the Tiflis road. He was a slight, thin-shanked fellow, gloomy of countenance, white as tallow, his hair falling in two golden curtains on either side of his long face. There was a rattling twang like that of an arrow striking a tree. The hat flew off the scarecrow’s head as if registering his surprise and stuck to a post of the daub wall behind him as he let loose an outlandish syllable in the rheumy jargon of his homeland.
In the fireplace a glowing castle of embers subsided to ash. The mahout heard the iron ticking of a kettle on the boil in the kitchen. The benches squeaked, and travelers spat in anticipation of a fight.
The Frankish scarecrow slipped out from under his impaled hat and unfolded himself one limb at a time, running his fingers along the parting in his yellow hair. He looked from the African to the hat and back. His cloak, trousers, hose and boots were all black, in sharp contrast with the pallor of his soft hands and the glints of golden whisker on his chin and cheeks, and if he was not a priest, then he must, thought the mahout, for whom a knowledge of men was a necessary corollary to an understanding of elephants, be a physician or an exegete of moldering texts. The Frank folded his arms over his bony chest and stood taking the African’s measure along the rule of his bony nose. He wore an arch smile and held his head at an angle meant to signify a weary half-amusement like that which plagued a philosophical man when he contemplated this vain human show. But it was apparent to the old mahout even with his one eye that the scarecrow was furious over the injury to his hat. His funereal clothes were of rich stuff, free of travel stains, suggesting that he maintained their appearance, and his own, with fierce determination.
The Frank reached two long fingers and a thumb into the wound in his hat, grimaced and with difficulty jerked out the dagger from the post. He turned the freed hat in his hands, suppressing the urge to stroke it, it seemed to the mahout, the way he himself would stroke the stubbled croup of a beloved dam as she expired. With an air of incalculable gravity, as if confiding the icon of a household god, the Frank passed the hat to the stripling and carried the dagger across the room to the African, who had long since returned to his bowl of stew.
“I believe, sir,” the Frank informed the African, speaking again in good Byzantine Greek, “that you have mislaid the implement required for the cleaning of your hooves.” The Frank jabbed the point of the dagger down into the table beside the shatranj board, jostling the pieces. “If I am mistaken as to the actual nature of your lower extremities, I beg you to join me in the courtyard of this house, at your leisure but preferably soon, so that, with the pedagogical instrument of your choice, you may educate me.”
The Frank waited. The one-eyed mahout and the stripling, wondering, waited. By the door to the inn yard, where the ostler leaned, whispered odds were laid and taken, and the mahout heard the clink of coins and the squeak of a chalk wielded by the ostler, a Svan who disdained the distinction between turning a profit from seeing to the comfort of his guests and that of turning one from watching them die.
“I’m sorry to report,” the African said, rising to his feet, his head brushing the beams of the sloping roof, speaking in the lilting, bastardized Greek used among the mercenary legions of the emperor at Constantinople, “that my hearing shares in the general decay of the broken-down black-assed old wreck you see before you.”
The African yanked the shard of Arab steel from the table and with it went in search of the Frank’s voice box, ending his quest no farther from the pale knuckle of the Frank’s throat than the width of the blade itself. The Frank fell back, bumping into a pair of Armenian wool factors at whom he glared as if it were some clumsiness of theirs and not his cowardly instinct for self-preservation that had cost him his footing.
“But I take your gist,” the African said, returning the dagger to his boot. On the ostler’s slate the odds began to run heavily against the Frank.
The African restored the shatranj board and pieces to a leather pouch, wiped his lips and then pushed past the Frank, past the craning heads along the benches and went out into the inn yard to kill or be killed by his insulter. As the men trooped after him into the torch-lit courtyard, carrying cups of wine, wiping their bearded chins on their forearms, the weapons belonging to the combatants were fetched from a rack in the stable.
If because of his immensity, the span of his arms and his homicidal air, and despite his protestations of senescence, which were universally regarded as gamesmanship, the betting had been inclined to favor the African before the weapons were fetched, the arming of the two men decided it. The Frank carried only a long, absurdly thin bodkin that might serve, in a pinch, to roast a couple of birds over an open fire, if they were not too plump. The travelers had a good laugh at “the tailor with his needle” and then pondered the mystery of the African’s choice of sidearm, a huge Viking ax, its haft an orgy of interpenetrating runes, the quarter-moon of its blade glowing cold, as with satisfied recollection of all the heads it had ever lopped from spouting necks.
Under the full moon of the month of Mehr, with the torches hissing, the African and the Frank circled an ambit of packed earth. The Frank minced and scissored on his walking-stick legs, the tip of his bodkin indicating the heart of the African, glancing from time to time at his own fine black boots as they threaded a course through the archipelago of camel and horse turds. The African employed an odd crabwise scuttling style of circling, knees bent, eyes fixed on the Frank, the ax held loosely in his left fist. The awkward, almost fond way they went about readying themselves to murder each other moved the old mahout, who had trained a thousand war elephants to kill and so recognized the professional quality of the interest these two combatants were taking in the fight. But the other travelers jostling under the eaves and archways of the inn yard, who knew nothing of the intimacy of slaughter, grew impatient. They jeered the combatants, urging them to hurry so they could all finish their suppers and file off to bed. Half-maddened by boredom, they doubled their wagers. Word of the duel had reached the village down the hill, and the gate of the inn yard was lively with women, children and sad-faced lean men with heroic moustaches. Boys climbed to the roof of the inn, shook their fists and hooted as the Frank and the African emptied their heads of last regrets.
Then the ax, humming, seemed to drag the African toward the belly of the Frank. Its blade caught the torchlight and scrawled an arcing rune of fire in the gloom. The Frankish scarecrow dodged, and watched, and ducked when the ax came looking for his head. He dropped to his shoulder, rolled on the ground, surprisingly adroit for a scatter-limbed scarecrow, and popped up behind the African, kicking him in the buttocks with a look on his face of such childish solemnity that the spectators again burst into laughter.
It was a contest of stamina against agility, and those who had their money on the former began with confidence in the favorite and his big Varangian ax, but the African, angered, grew gross and undiscerning in his ax-play. He shattered a huge clay jar full of rainwater, soaking a dozen outraged travelers. He splintered the wheel spokes of a hay wagon, and as the solemn Frank danced, rolled and thrust with his slender bodkin, the berserker ax bit flagstones, shedding handfuls of sparks.
The torches guttered, and the tinge of blood drained from the moon as it rose into the night sky. A boy watching the fracas from the roof leaned too far out, tumbled and broke his arm. Wine was fetched, mixed with clean water from the well and handed in bowls to the duelists, who staggered and reeled around the inn yard now, bleeding from a dozen cuts.
Then tossing aside the wine bowls, they faced each other. The watchful mahout caught a flicker in the giant African’s eyes that was not torchlight. Once more the ax dragged the African like a charger trailing a dead cavalryman by the heel. The Frank tottered backward, and then as the African heaved past he drove the square toe of his left boot into the African’s groin. All the men in the inn yard squirmed in half-willing sympathy as the African collapsed in silence onto his stomach. The Frank slid his preposterous sword into the African’s side and yanked it out again. After thrashing for a few instants, the African lay still, as his dark–though not, someone determined, black–blood muddied the ground.
The ostler signaled to a pair of grooms, and with difficulty they dragged the dead giant out to a disused stable beyond the present walls of the caravansary and threw an old camel skin over him.
The Frank straightened his cuffs and hose and reentered the caravansary, declining to accept the congratulations or good-natured japery of the losing bettors. He declined to take a drink too, and indeed melancholy seemed to overcome him in the wake of the fight, or perhaps his natural inclinations toward Northern gloom merely resumed their reign over his heart and face. He chewed his stew and took his leave. He wandered down to the stream behind the caravansary to wash his hands and face, then slipped into the derelict stable, doffing his ruined hat as if in tribute to the bravery of his opponent.
“How much?” he said as he entered the stable.
“Seventy,” the giant African replied, stringing the laces of his felt bambakion, its counterfeit bloodstains washed away in a horse trough, to the horn of his saddle. He rode a red-spotted Parthian, tall and thick-muscled, whose name was Porphyrogene. “Enough for a dozen fine new black hats for you when we get to Rhages.”
“Don’t even say the word ‘hat,’ I beg you,” the Frank said, gazing down at the hole in the high crown. “It saddens me.”
“Admit it was a fine throw.”
“Not half so fine as this hat,” the Frank said. He laid the hat aside and opened his shirt, revealing a bright laceration that ran, beaded with waxy drips of blood, across his abdomen. Flows of blood swagged his hollow belly. He looked away and gritted his teeth as the African dabbed at him with a rag, then applied a thick black paste taken from a pot that the Frank carried in his saddlebags. “I loved that hat almost as much as I love Hillel.”
At that moment the animal in question, a woolly stallion with a Roman nose and its neck a rampant arch, stubby-legged and broad in the croup, the product of some unsupervised tryst between an Arabian and a wild tarpan, gave a warning snort, and there was a scrape of leather sole against straw.
The Frank and the living African turned to the door. Expecting the ostler, thought the old elephant trainer, with their share of the take, which included four of the mahout’s own hard-won dirhams.
“You mendacious sons of bitches,” the mahout said admiringly, reaching for the hilt of his sword.
From the Hardcover edition.