The day Husayn ibn Jubayr came down to Fezana, the entire Jewish quarter was aflame with rumor and conversation. Everywhere Jehane bet Ishak went that morning, people talked and babbled and gossiped at her, for they all knew that Ibn Jubayr had been a trusted friend, and a loyal confidant, of her father for many years. Although the man hadn’t visited in many months, and despite the fact of her father’s condition, the townspeople still turned to her for information.
Jehane politely avoided questions, and told people that she herself had never met the man. She went on her rounds, now limited to picking up medicinal herbs and fresh linen, trying to avoid people’s gazes. Her father’s practice had been closed for months now, ever since his maiming at the hands of King Almalik himself; a gift from a sovereign for saving his first wife from a deadly pregnancy. The only patients Ishak received now were people whom Jehane could treat herself, and even those were few and far between. She’d been in the middle of her training and apprenticeship with her father when he had been called to treat Almalik’s wife.
Blind and mute, her father now spent his days in the darkness of the cellars of his house. He hadn’t reacted to any of them since he had lost his most precious senses; not his wife, not Velaz, his confidant and servant, and not Jehane, his daughter and friend.
It was a hot day at market, and Jehane made her way to the docks slowly. The sun was merciless even at this early hour, and her tunic clung to her uncomfortably. Her long red hair, left unbound in this poor Jewish part of the city, framed her face in damp curls.
Lost in her thoughts, she realized someone had been calling her name. She looked out at the nearest merchant’s stall.
A man she knew well, who was selling ash and oil for soap-making, brandished a small glass vial at her, all crooked smiles and good-natured deviousness. “This one is for you, if you would but tell me of Jubayr’s reasons for coming all the way down here from the Caliphate.”
Jehane managed to force a small smile past her lips, and rearranged the heavy basket containing the morning’s purchases on her hip. “I am sorry, Mas’ud ibn Karif. If I knew why Almalik’s secretary deems my father’s house worthy of his visit, I am sure I would tell you.”
Ibn Karif stared at her, taken aback by her tone. When he realized why she had snapped at him, he blanched, shook his head, and thrust the vial of oil into her unresisting hand. “I apologize Jehane; that was careless of me. Don’t mind this old fool’s memory.”
She took the vial, sighing, placed it into the basket at her hip. “You need not apologize, Ibn Karif. I am made short-tempered by all this noise; it is mostly silent now at my father’s house.”
The older man sent her a pained look. “I am sorry, child.”
She smiled at him again, to show willing, and wished him a good day as she turned and walked back towards the docks, where her father and his silent grief awaited her in the dark.
* * *
When she got home later that morning, she found her mother and Velaz deep in conversation with Husayn ibn Jubayr, who had managed to slip by neighbors and curious onlookers and was seated in the hall of her father’s practice, his two guards standing by the main door.
Their conversation stuttered to a stop as Jehane entered, and she felt their eyes on her back as she made her way into the room slowly, not acknowledging the man.
She leveled the basket up onto a workbench and started emptying it of its contents. She laid each item down slowly, delaying a meeting she dreaded; fresh linen from the Muslim weavers, several bunches of fragrant dried herbs, bottles of purifying unguents, a small sharp knife to replace her father’s pitted blade and Mas’ud’s glass vial of oil. She took a moment to open it gently and smell its contents.
She sighed and stoppered it again. Lavender and jasmine, sickeningly sweet and absolutely useless. Perhaps my mother will find a use for it, she thought.
She turned and glared at the man, then forced her gaze to her mother, who had spoken.
“I know this will be hard for you, Jehane, but Ibn Jubayr is here to see you.”
Ibn Jubayr, under a sudden stare of green puzzled eyes, coughed nervously. He was a thin, unfortunately balding man, but his skin was the darkest Jehane had seen in a long time, and his eyes, through dark and small, were still possessed of a childlike gleam which she would only later come to understand.
He nodded at her, shyly. “I’ve come here to offer you some small measure of compensation for what has been done to your family in the name of the Caliphate. I know it is not much, but it is all I am allowed to give you.” He gestured to an unoccupied chair. Jehane’s mother and Velaz both got up and left slowly, Velaz sending her a pleading look which she recognized as one he would give her as a child. It was a chiding look, asking her to be mild and act in a way befitting a young woman.
So, her mother and servant both knew what this was about. Ibn Jubayr had come here for her, not for her father.
She sat, reluctantly. He continued, “As you know, I have been for the last few years serving the Caliphate and our King here in Cartada. Before this, I went on a pilgrimage to the southern lands, to Egypt, and further to the East to what the Christians persist in calling the Kingdom of Jerusalem.”
She nodded. This was common knowledge. Everyone knew of Ibn Jubayr’s travels and of his written accounts of them. She herself had been to one of his readings, and had enjoyed it, much to her own chagrin. The man had obviously been changed by his voyage, and it had been an inspiring experience.
He managed to catch her eyes, and held her gaze for a moment, before looking down at his hands. “In Damascus, there are many physicians who are doing great things; I am sure your father would approve of their ideals and methods. I know of one man who is striving to better our understanding of some illnesses which are impossible to explain. Several others have made it their life’s work to find ways to eliminate infectious and virulent diseases.”
She waited, unsure of what the man’s presence here now meant. She realized with a start that her heart was beating an unknown fast rhythm, and that her throat felt clenched and sore. She knew she didn’t want him to finish his thought, his sentence.
But he did.
“It is a good place for a young physician to learn, Jehane. I am traveling south and east again this year, and I want you to come with me.”
And the world turned to ash around her.