by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by beili
In dreaming of home, he wondered if home dreamt of him. He imagined it might be so, for the coins and the Caliphs called it Madinat al-Salaam, the City of Peace, and the people called it by its old name, Baghdad — but the poets called it the City of Dreaming.
He rode in on camel through the Basra Gate on the southeast, from a road that led to the four quarters of the empire. The Basra Gate was well-defended from attack, with a bent entrance passage and an elevated chamber that a man could only reach by staircase or ramp. A domed structure topped the gate where the Caliph sometimes went to look over the walls and see what lay beyond the City of Dreaming, but Zamir knew well what lay beyond the city. He had known it well for seven years, and only now was he, the exiled traitor, returning home.
Through the Basra Gate and into the Round City, the domain of the caliphs of Baghdad, built by Al-Mansur to be the jewel of the Abbasid dynasty. Through the avenues of the inner city, lined with bazaars and promenades. Through the outer ring where the high-ranking members of the court lived. Through the inner ring that housed the treasury and the government offices. Through to the heart of the Round City, its beating bloodsong. Here stood the esplanade that circled the great mosque and, beyond the mosque, the Caliph’s Palace.
Zamir looked up at the piercing sky and the unforgiving sun. What he felt when he saw the familiar green tiles of the Qubbat al-Khadra, the Dome of Heaven, he kept to himself, except that it was a hot surge inside his body, a sorrow mixed in with fury. He gazed at the weathervane atop the Dome of Heaven, the horseman who revolved with the winds, signalling the fortunes of the Caliph.
He heard Bahija chuckle inside his head, and he could feel her move like a smoky presence through his veins. Look, they have come into the courtyard to greet you, she said darkly. All your old friends.
She was right. There was a small gathering on the palace steps, and among the forefront he recognized Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi, who came forward and waited until Zamir had dismounted before grabbing his hands. “Zamir, is that you!” he said jovially. Seven years gone, and old Razi was heavier than ever before, but his eyes were kind and Zamir remembered that this man had been one of the few to support him when Al-Saadi had uncovered the evidence that proved his treason.
“Doctor,” Zamir said warmly, and he let Razi lead him towards the others, who watched him approach with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. Then a young woman threw herself at him with indecorous speed, her eyes bright and her voice quick. He did not recognize her at first, except for when he could see a trace of her smile beneath her veils, and he said, “Princess Hadiyya, you’ve grown so much!”
“In all the right ways, I hope!” she said. “Oh Zamir, you scoundrel, we have missed you,” and Zamir could only hope that was true. He let Hadiyya and Razi chatter at him, asking if it had been a long journey (it had), asking whether he was hungry (he was), and asking after Bahija (bad-tempered as always, but what could one expect of a djinni). As his old friends spoke, he laughed at the right places and gave the right responses, letting them remember how charming he could be. At the same time, he studied the faces of those others who had come to meet him. There were many faces he did not recognize, and a few he did. They were the faces of another life, it felt like, and he searched through them for the one face he most wanted to see.
He was a fortunate man, to have members of the Caliph’s own family come to welcome him home. It was a courtesy extended to him as a former royal guard and a close confidante of his charges. Not many could enjoy the privileges that he did, being so beloved to the Abbasids that when the old Caliph died, his son immediately rescinded Zamir’s exile and bid him return. So here he was, by the grace of Fahim ibn Al-Abdullah, Caliph of Baghdad, the Amir al-Mu’minin, Commander of the Faithful. His ruler and his boyhood friend. As a child of a government official, Zamir had played in these very courtyards with the three princes.
The new Caliph was too busy to attend to his homecoming, of course, but his two younger brothers were there. Prince Massoud, who watched Zamir with suspicious eyes, and then, there, when the crowd parted slightly and Zamir could see to the very back, he found the quiet, calm presence of the man he was looking for.
His throat closed, but he managed a quirked smile and an extravagant bow. “It’s been a long time,” he said, and he knew what tones he strove for: as if he had simply stepped out of the palace for a nighttime jaunt and forgotten to return.
“Yes,” said Prince Malik ibn Al-Abdullah.
And now you fall, whispered Bahija.
“So tell me,” Zamir said as he strode through the halls of the palace with Razi at his side, “how furious are my enemies to see me?”
“Well, you saw Prince Massoud’s face,” Razi said. “Like your camel spit in his eye!”
“Three sons,” Zamir said. “The pleasant one, the ambitious one, and the shy one. The worst possible combination is when the ambitious one is the secondborn and his father’s least favourite.” He entered his old rooms and saw that very little had been changed in them, though dust and disrepair had left their mark. “But why are we ruining my glorious day by wasting our breath on Massoud? Something to drink! And music, and perhaps a girl.”
“They didn’t have girls in Damascus?” Razi asked.
“Not for me, for you.” Zamir smirked. He stepped into the hall and beckoned a serving girl over, giving orders for nectar, bread, and yogurt. When he returned, he found Razi already seated comfortably among the cushions, sifting through Zamir’s bags, looking — as always — for new books. Zamir joined him on the ground and watched in peaceful silence as Razi pulled out several volumes of philosophy and one or two on medicine.
“Those would be useless to you,” Zamir said. “You know more than the rest of those doddering fools put together.”
“I still want to know what the doddering fools say,” Razi replied. “Better than not making mistakes is anticipating mistakes from others.”
The serving girl returned with a tray of food, and she arranged them while trying to keep her eyes downcast, as befitting her rank and station. However, her training was weaker than her fascination, and Zamir saw how she kept lifting her eyes to steal quick glances at him. “Go on, have a look,” he said languidly, and she startled, beginning to apologize. “I can never say no to the gaze of a lovely woman.”
He was long used to the stares, for djinni-bound were rare and rarer still was the man who controlled a marid, who were the most powerful types of all. If she looked, she could see the fire-in-the-eye that was the sign of a djinni-bound, and if she were clever, she could see the shadow of Bahija that waited inside.
Hello, girl, Bahija said. I would very much like to eat you.
She didn’t hear. Zamir did, and he said, “Oh stop it, Bahija. There will be no eating of people in the palace.”
The serving girl quickly withdrew.
“You’ve scared her away,” Razi said disapprovingly. “Are these the legendary seduction charms I hear so much about?”
“If she wants to thrive here, she’ll have to deal with worse than me,” Zamir said, as Bahija curled around his lungs. “I assume Al-Saadi is still around?”
“Unfortunately,” Razi said, helping himself to a generous dollop of yogurt on bread. “With the death of al-Khayyam, he is the only djinni-bound of marid rank we have. Well, until your return,” he added. “This should spice things up.”
“Al-Khayyam is dead?” Zamir said.
“It came in his sleep.” Razi sighed jealously.
“Allah yarhamu,” Zamir said. “He was a good man.” It was the truth. Al-Khayyam had done little for him when Al-Saadi brandished the lies that had convinced the old Caliph of Zamir’s crimes, but he had not joined in the braying either. A weak man, but a good man, and Zamir was sorry to see him go, not in the least because it meant leaving him and Al-Saadi as the two leading sorcerers of the court. Razi was right. Things were going to be interesting.
“Al-Saadi and Prince Massoud are still plotting together?” Zamir asked.
“As far as I can tell,” Razi replied. “Massoud tried to convince his father to name him as heir instead of Fahim, but you saw how that successful that was. I’ve tried to tell Fahim to be careful, but knows if he will listen? He is the most trusting man to ever hike up his robes and defend the faith.”
“That’s why he has us,” Zamir said, raising his eyebrows. “And what of Prince Malik? Where does he lie these days?”
“According to harem rumours? With no one and nothing,” Razi said. He laughed. “Politically speaking? He keeps to himself. He is loyal to Fahim, no doubt about that, but he is close with Massoud as well. He is a hard one to read, Malik. You always knew him better than I did.”
Bahija laughed softly.
“That was seven years ago,” Zamir said, picking up a carafe of nectar juice, “and I don’t think we parted on good terms. Did you see how stoic he was with me in the courtyard?”
“Yes, but Malik is always like that,” Razi said. “Don’t let it mean anything. Half the time I think he is merely being polite with me, exercising those exquisite manners of his, but then he comes to my rooms and will spend hours playing chess into the late night.”
Zamir smiled, amused. “Malik is terrible at chess.”
“Atrocious,” Razi agreed. “His is a more refined, aristocratic soul than us waddling brutes. You are lucky to catch him in Baghdad, though. He is usually with the armies, holding down the rebellions in northern Persia. He returned to court only a week ago.” Razi’s soft face split into a smile. “Perhaps he heard about your homecoming.”
“Unlikely,” Zamir said.
Ah, but listen to the way your heart jumps, Bahija said. You hope.
“Hope,” Zamir said out loud, “is the province of fools and dreamers. Hope means nothing when you are playing games with Abbasid princes.” It did not matter that he had been gone from court for seven years — once learned, those lessons were impossible to forget.
They returned to him his formal titles: Lord Zamir ibn Wasif Al-Diya, Master of Djinn, He-Who-Walks-Through-Fire. As the days passed, he found himself settling back into court life with a surprising and disturbing ease. The seven years away had been difficult, in mind, body, and in his purse. When he had left, he’d had little on him, and he’d been forced to make his own fortune on the roads and in the deserts, ending up as a sorcerer-for-hire in Damascus, where in the beginning he took any contracts that he could, no matter how demeaning. Outside of the caliphate, the djinni-bound were feared more often than they were respected, and it had not been until the fourth year of exile that he had been able to gain a stable clientele. Those first four years had been very hard indeed, and he had thought always of his homeland, of the sound of the Tigris each and every spring.
There were luxuries now that he hadn’t enjoyed in a long time: silk and cold fruits and chessboards carved out of jewels and ivory, the great artisans of the Caliphate decorating his rooms and leaving him surrounded by beauty.
The Caliph received him on the third day of his return. When Zamir entered the audience hall that laid underneath the Qubbat al-Khadra, the Caliph separated himself from his advisors and embraced Zamir like a brother. “My father was wrong to have sent you away,” Fahim said. “Now the wrong has been righted.”
“Your Eminence,” Zamir said, “you have not changed at all.”
Fahim grinned. “It is my boyish face, isn’t it?”
“You look as young as your sons,” Zamir said. “Whose existences still shock me. Little Fahims running around. It seems like yesterday that we ourselves were children. Do you remember how you used to hit me with that practice sword of yours? Swinging it all the wrong ways.”
“Sometimes, when you were being annoying, it wasn’t even an accident,” Fahim said. “Of course, that was before you went and bound a djinni in the desert. Now, if I hit you with a stick, you would likely scorch me into dust.”
Zamir chuckled. Fahim put one hand on his shoulder and said, “There will be a feast for you. Let me give you that honour.”
There was a feast indeed, and there were crowds, and there were galas, and the month passed very quickly, with a thousand appointments and a thousand people who came to greet Lord Zamir the Once-Exiled, eager to catch a glimpse of this scandalous figure, or to see Bahija. If they came for the former, Zamir was always glad to comply. If they came for the latter, they left disappointed. Bahija revealed herself to precious few.
Zamir visited the House of Wisdom with Razi, marveling at the growth of the libraries and the collections, where books had come from the Greek cities and as far away as the Ganges. In the galleys and desks of the House of Wisdom, librarians worked with astronomers and linguists, and there were the umela, the great scholars of Islamic law, whose presence always made Zamir feel restless because it had been under those very laws that he’d been sentenced. But he had Fahim’s favour, he reminded himself, and he was cordial and flattering when need be. It was only after he and Razi walked away that he allowed himself any other reaction.
Razi took him to the madaris as well, the schools where young boys of the court were educated. They came up to him, these curly-haired youth, half in fear and half in awe. “How does a man command a djinni?” one boy asked, staring at Zamir as if he could understand the questions of the universe. “Did you really fight alongside Prince Malik on the Persian front?” another asked. “How many times did you save his life?”
“Let me tell you,” Zamir said, kneeling down so that he was at eye-level with the boys. “When you are djinni-bound, you are a member of the royal guard, because to wield such power as God grants it means you must dedicate it to a worthy service.”
“Show us!” the boys said, and so Zamir brought his arm down and there was an arc of fire, blazing red and white against his sleeve. The boys gasped, which made Zamir grin. His friends and enemies always did accuse him of being flamboyant, prone to admiring his own glory, and he so hated to disappoint them. He clapped his hands and there was an explosion right behind him, a great wisp of fire spiraling up into the air and then fanning outwards. Then he clapped his hands again and turned himself briefly invisible. A third clap, and he reappeared levitating above the ground.
“I heard,” a boy said, when he found his voice again, “you can kill a man with a thought.”
“That is untrue,” Zamir said archly. “You must always think before you kill a man.”
It was only later, when he had stopped in the open passageway between the djinni-bound’s living quarters and the main compound — stopped to admire the evening lights — that he heard a pair of quiet footsteps behind him, and Malik’s voice.
“I have a favour to ask of you,” he said.
Zamir turned around lazily and studied Malik. He looked older, of course. They both did. They had been young men the last they saw each other; now they had entered the middle portions of their lives. Still, Malik was as soldier-lean as ever, with the elegant features that he shared with his four siblings. Their mother had been reckoned a great beauty and stories said the old Caliph fell in love with her by a single glance. One beauty, however, that Malik did not have to share: when he lifted his hands to gesticulate, Zamir had a rush of painful memory. Malik did always did possess the most exquisite hands; they were his and his alone.
“First you say ‘yes’ and now you ask me for a favour,” Zamir said. “I think there are a few words missing in between, such as ‘how are you’ and ‘I am glad you are back.’ Unless, of course, you aren’t glad that I’m back.”
“Justice was served,” Malik said in his soft-spoken way. “Proper justice. My father was blinded to the truth. You deserve your place at court.”
“And by your side?” Zamir asked.
“When I return to the armies, you are perfectly welcome to join me,” Malik said.
You would like that, wouldn’t you? Bahija whispered. Fucking him the night before a battle. Having him on his hands and knees inside his tent, with you bent over his back, pushing inside him.
Malik continued. “You are… popular at court. I have no doubt you’ll have your pick of positions. I am here to discuss someone who doesn’t have quite the same powers as you do.” He leaned in closer, for privacy’s sake, but the reasoning did little to stop Zamir’s blood from going hot. Bahija stirred; he had to struggle to suppress her. “My sister,” Malik said. “Hadiyya. Two years ago, she paid a visit to Medina, representing our household. I know, she is almost too young, but my father wanted to use her as a pawn. In any case, she came across trouble in the middle of the wilderness, and when the trouble came, so did a djinni.”
“She is djinni-bound?” Zamir asked, cutting to the quick.
Malik’s eyes flicked up at him and then flicked away. “Yes,” he said. “She bent the djinni to her will. I know the old scholars say women cannot be djinni-bound but—”
“They are wrong,” Zamir said. “I met several women during my exile. Powerful women.” Women who had shared his food and water on the road, women who answered to no one, women who invited him into their beds and rode him hard, so far from civilization where no one could censure them.
“Baghdad will not allow it,” Malik said. “Fahim is tolerant, but he is still working against centuries of thinking. Even in the House of Wisdom, they will not allow a woman to be djinni-bound and still live. It is against God, they say.” He looked at Zamir, and Zamir could not read him. “She needs a teacher,” Malik finally said.
“Ah,” said Zamir.
“If you bear any love for my family—”
I kissed you once, Zamir thought. The night before I left Baghdad. You came to me to say goodbye, and I kissed you right on the mouth, holding you in my arms. You did not push me away. Do you remember that? Do you ever think of me at all?
But when Malik wanted to, his face could be as stone. The youngest of the three princes, the quietest, the least likely to speak of what he felt and what he wanted. He used to smile much more often when they were boys, but war and responsibility had hardened him. Zamir supposed it had hardened them all.
“Will you do this?” Malik asked.
“Bring her to me tomorrow after first prayers,” Zamir said. “Don’t be late.”
Zamir woke before dawn, when the night was still crowned in shadows, but he was a lord of fire — it had been a very long time since he had last worried about shadows. In the dark, slaves moved silently to fill his basin with water, where he bathed and then slid on his caftan, a smooth tan fall of fabric whose sleeves were embroidered with swirling blue and violet bands, far finer than anything he had owned in Damascus. Underneath the caftan he slipped on his trousers and his boots, and then there was the leather belt with three long lappets. Malik would wear his belt with two daggers, but Zamir had no use for weapons.
Thus dressed, he went to the window by his bed and began his exercises. He bent and lowered himself on his knees, rising up and down, stretching out sleeping muscles. “Bahija,” he called, and he could feel her wake inside him, twisting alongside his veins. When she was awake, he began his breathing exercises, which Al-Khayyam had taught him when he was but a boy. There was the Breath of the First Door, the Breath of the Gardens, the Breath of the Palace, each in succession, meant to calm his mind and focus his will towards the creature who shared his body.
“Remember our covenant,” Zamir said. “You do not want me to be angry with you.”
I shiver! Bahija said on a tendril of laughter.
Djinn were like humans. There were good ones and bad ones, kind ones and foul ones — which was what the scholars of the ulema said, except Zamir had yet to meet a djinni whose mother tongue was not greed and capriciousness. Perhaps the virtuous djinn took no interests in humans, and it was only their black-hearted counterparts who snaked into deserts and waylaid unwary travelers.
But what does that say about you? That you let me in, Bahija purred.
“True, there was not much left of me to corrupt,” Zamir said, and smiled with all his teeth. The silence of the dark hour was broken suddenly by the call to prayer, sounding high from the muezzin in the minaret. “Shall we go then?” he said, holding out a hand to an invisible partner.
He is the God of djinn too, Bahija sighed.
When the prayers were over, and they were leaving the mosque with the mihrab at their backs, Zamir caught sight of Malik. “Where to?” Malik asked, and Zamir replied with the location of a room off the iwan, a quiet room that he could seal against prying eyes. Malik nodded. “I will find Hadiyya and we will meet you there,” he said, walking away towards the women.
Zamir did as he promised: he pressed his thumb to each corner of the room, raising wards that would protect them against spies. Unless the spy was djinni-bound himself — and even then, it wasn’t certain. Zamir was widely acknowledged to be the most powerful of his brethren at court, but he didn’t look forward to a situation where he would actually be forced to prove it, pitting his strength against the strength of men like Al-Saadi.
Hadiyya swept in in her silk tunic, her veils crooked in her excitement. “Thank you, Zamir!” she said. “Thank you, thank you, a thousand thanks!”
“And that is how we know she is young,” Zamir remarked.
“Be brutish to me. I don’t care,” Hadiyya said. “Only make him stop trying to crush my lungs! It is annoying.”
Zamir took a seat on the floor, cross-legged. “What is his name?”
“Ilyas,” Hadiyya said. “If I hear him correctly.”
Zamir watched, from the corner of his eye, as Malik took a seat in the corner, making no sound to draw attention to his presence. “It will be difficult to hear his voice in the beginning,” Zamir agreed. “Djinn have the gift of tongues, so he knows Arabic as well as you or I, but they have an accent, if you will. Their tongue is of fire and smoke, so you must learn to decipher their guttural sounds.” He lifted his hands and spread his calloused fingers. “If you cannot understand him, you cannot yet control him — you will have to bear with the pain for some while longer.”
Hadiyya frowned. “If I must. But what if he kills me? I can feel him squeezing down on my insides all the time.”
“It happens,” Zamir said frankly. He saw Malik frown. “To them, we are merely flesh, and djinn, you’ll learn, do not care much for flesh. They are fascinated by it, which is why they agree to bind themselves to us, but they disdain it at the same time. Isn’t that right, Bahija?”
So tempted by wayward lusts and frustrations, she said. What a nuisance.
“But they do not feel pleasure as we do,” Zamir added in a too-loud whisper, and Hadiyya blushed with shocked delight. Malik straightened from his position by the wall, and Zamir wondered if he had gone too far, taken too many liberties with the young, sheltered princess — but how sheltered could she be, with a djinni beating against her heart, whispering to her mind? Hadiyya would learn. Malik would have to learn to live with it, over-protectiveness aside.
Zamir smiled flirtatiously and lifted his hand. He might as well take another liberty while he was here. “May I feel your pulse?” he said. “I’ll be able to determine how healthy both you and Ilyas are. A strong double pulse is a good sign.”
Hadiyya glanced at Malik.
“It is not proper,” Malik said. “You are a man and she is a woman.”
“Really?” Zamir drawled. “This pronouncement comes as a complete revelation.”
“Zamir is like a brother to me,” Hadiyya said. “He does not mean me any untoward attention! You know this!”
“He is not your brother,” Malik said. His eyes lowered. “It is not proper, and it will not be done as long as I am here. Let me take your pulse, Hadiyya. Zamir can tell me what to look for.”
“It won’t be the same,” Zamir said. “I use Bahija to feel for the signs.”
Malik’s eyes were dark stones as he moved between them. “You have been too long in the wilds. I don’t know how you did things there, but this is the court of my brother and my father.” He knelt before Hadiyya, and his voice went gentle. “Please understand me. People whisper and say slanderous lies. I could not bear for shame to fall to you.”
“Like it did me, you mean,” Zamir interrupted.
“If a man as glittering and as powerful as you could be thrown to the mercy of the court, then what hope is there for Hadiyya?” Malik replied without looking at him. “The both of you dangle on fragile lines. The both of you are too brash, too bold. Why can you not understand? Only through caution can you live another day.”
“But you’re not happy!” Hadiyya said. “Don’t lie to me, Malik! You’re not!”
“Do you think the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, was happy?” Malik said. “Happiness is such a small thing. Let the djinn have it. Let me have you, alive and well,” he said, saying tender words to his sister that he had never said to Zamir — and why should he? It was not proper, they had no blood ties, and Malik did not care for courtiers tainted with treason, even if redeemed. Zamir watched the tableau before him, jealousy rolling a storm through his stomach.
He makes you weak, Bahija said.
“And what would you have me do about it?” Zamir said, lounging in the meeting chamber shared by the djinni-bound of the Caliph’s court. He was not alone, but he hardly let that still his tongue — one-sided conversations were useful in unsettling his enemies, who feared Bahija like the devil. “I can hardly rip out my heart and toss it aside.”
Can you not? We should investigate, Bahija said.
“If it happens, I will offer it to the cooks. They can make it into a dish for you,” Zamir said. “Of course, since you would need my mouth to devour it, I would essentially be eating my own innards.” He pitched his voice to imitate Malik’s. “It would not be proper.”
He has a stick up his ass, Bahija said slyly. What he needs is a—
“That’s enough from you,” Zamir said. He looked up as Al-Saadi entered the room. “And so the great man himself arrives!” he called out. “How I have missed you in my years away. How are your daughters?”
Al-Saadi gave him a look of deepest contempt. “They are well.”
“I missed them too,” Zamir said, rolling the words around in his mouth, watching how Al-Saadi stiffened. Zamir smiled.
The numbers of the court’s djinni-bound had changed since the last Zamir had seen them. Al-Khayyam was dead, of course, but several of the other djinni-bound Zamir used to consider compatriots were missing as well — some sent away on missions, others stationed at various points of the empire. There were five men total at this meeting, and at least two of them were young men Zamir barely recognized, baby-faced, freshly bound. Zamir stood up and introduced himself. Every new djinni-bound served a period of indenture to a particular member of the royal family. The young man to his left, with the scars on his nose, was currently serving Fahim. Zamir took note of him — a promising talent. The second young man, with the luscious curls, served Massoud.
Five years of indentured service, waiting on their master hand and foot. Zamir remembered his own bound-service, where he had been bodyguard and lackey to Malik. They’d both been youths then, barely old enough to shave, when the old Caliph had sent them to the Persian front. He wanted Malik to be a soldier, and he wanted Zamir to bring him back alive. They’d been successful on both accounts. Nineteen years of age, and thrown into fields of blood and dried sand, with Malik gasping for air, staring down at the sight of his first man killed. I am not meant for this, Malik had confessed. I wanted to be a poet.
In the beginning, their enemies had feared Zamir more than they feared Malik — for Malik was the untried third son while Zamir was the youngest djinni-bound in two hundred years. But the truth was, both boys had been untested then. Zamir had lacked control over Bahija, and there used to be an alarm in the camps — three blows of the trumpet, which meant djinni-fire. He had once destroyed their entire marching supply of food by accident. Malik had been furious.
By the end of the campaign, though, they had both learned to perform their roles. Armies knew who they were when they approached: the prince and his mad sorcerer, they said.
Old days. Good days. Simpler days too.
“Our brother Zamir had returned to us,” Al-Saadi was saying to the others. Zamir forced his attention to the meeting, which had begun without him noticing. “By the grace of the Caliph, but it is my regret that he will not stay with us for long.”
“Oh?” Zamir said. “Then I should have said earlier: congratulations on developing your oracular powers.”
“Brother Zamir, forgive me when I say that you are a deceitful serpent,” Al-Saadi said. Zamir laughed out loud — that was blunt! Well, good for him! Zamir had expected him to crawl around the matter for at least a month. “You slither back into our midst, pretending repentance, manipulating the Caliph’s misguided affections for you. I have tried to tolerate your insouciant ways! God knows I have tried! But you are not welcome here.”
Zamir turned to the other djinni-bound, including the two boys. “See how quick he is to turn from a smile to a scowl?” He faced Al-Saadi again, who was pinched-faced with displeasure. “I have nothing but respect for you, brother, but it is not your place to determine my welcome.”
“The Caliph must know the full extent of your treason,” Al-Saadi said. He reached into his caftan and produced a wrinkled slip of parchment, folded over three times. He unfolded it and read. “He knows nothing. He is blind, deaf, and a fool. My fists shake with fury. If I could, I would burn them all to the ground: Al-Saadi, Massoud, and the apparently Rightful Caliph! After all I have done for them! I would wring their coward necks.'”
Zamir grew still.
“You recognize this, don’t you?” Al-Saadi mocked, waving the letter. “You wrote this to a friend in Basra, who graciously supplied the letter when I asked.”
“I wrote that in the first year of my exile,” Zamir said softly. “I wrote it in the prime of my rage. It means nothing now.”
“You threatened harm against the former Caliph and his family,” Al-Saadi said. He tucked the letter back into his caftan, and Zamir had a wild moment of deliberation — could he, should he, would it be worth it to take Al-Saadi on right now, strike him down where he stood? But the eyes of the other djinni-bound were on them, all those watchful courtier eyes, and Zamir wrangled his temper into something approaching calm. Al-Saadi was nothing, and Zamir could likely take on the others as well, but it would be a bloodbath and it would look bad, killing the youths.
“You will show that letter to Fahim, I imagine?” he said instead, keeping his voice light.
“I will show it to the Caliph, whose name is dirtied by your mouth,” Al-Saadi said.
“There are a great many dirty things about here,” Zamir agreed, reaching into a nearby bowl for a piece of fruit.
He cloaked himself in shadows and that night entered Al-Saadi’s chambers while the Al-Saadi was sleeping. There were four wards on the door, for protection, but Zamir broke them with a stroke of his index finger, smearing ashy grains against the stone columns. He brought his finger to his mouth and sucked on it, feeling for the power of Khaliq, Al-Saadi’s djinni, who tasted like oil and leather.
Let me hunt him down, I will scatter his smoke to the winds, Bahija said, and he could feel the sharp press of her teeth on his shoulder.
“And do you think that will work out well for the both of us?” Zamir asked in a low voice, amused. What did djinn know of practicalities? They didn’t have to eat, they never had to shit — and even sleep was a luxury, a choice of device. He undid the last of Al-Saadi’s wards and listened for sounds on the other side. When he could test the air and feel the vibration of Al-Saadi’s snores, he looked around twice, making sure the Mamluks around the corner had not noticed him, and then he slipped inside the room, opening and closing the door as quietly as possible.
Zamir had never been much for stealth. One did not ask a djinni-bound to sneak about; why ask the thunder to do the job of the rain? But Al-Saadi had the letter, and Zamir was not inclined to let him keep it. Let him wake up and wonder where the letter had gone. Oh, he would know it was Zamir — Al-Saadi was hardly a fool. But he would never be able to prove it, and even the acknowledgement of its theft would be an admission of weakness.
Inside the room, Al-Saadi was sleeping in a bed similar to Zamir’s own: wide, and with four posters, an extravagant sign of the rank and respect the djinni-bound commanded at court. Al-Saadi was lying on his side, snoring softly, his hair loose around his face.
Zamir stared down at him. He had little doubt that Al-Saadi had been among those who had engineered his exile, planting false accusations of treason into the old Caliph’s mind. The urge for retribution was strong. Al-Saadi was not a young man anymore. Not old enough to die in his sleep, no, but there could be any number of poisons disguised as sickness. Zamir had gained a mind’s library of esoteric knowledge while consorting with the powerful sorcerers outside Baghdad — he was no longer limited to the pure magics ordained by the Caliph, the imams, the ulema, and the qadis.
But he was meant to be civilized now. He remembered what Malik had said. This is the court of my brother and my father.
Malik already thought of him as half-feral, too willing to let Bahija rule him. He didn’t say as much, but Zamir could see the thoughts that gathered like ill humours — one day they would break into a fever, and then Zamir could never get Malik’s good opinion back.
Weak, Bahija said again.
Zamir ignored her and stepped towards the sleeping Al-Saadi. If he knew the man — and years of moving in the same claustrophobic circles meant he knew him very well indeed — the letter would be tucked against his body. He’d never let it go. Zamir spun his finger in the air, and the top of Al-Saadi’s robes spread apart. There was a gleam of paper against skin. Zamir coaxed the letter out and into his hand.
His triumph was short-lived. Stepping back into the hall, he found Malik stationed at the corner, exchanging words with the Mamluk guard on duty. Malik turned his head a degree to look in Zamir’s direction. Zamir strengthened the shadows around him, bleeding into invisibility, but Malik dismissed the guard with a single word. The guard left, and Malik started walking towards Al-Saadi’s door.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Zamir kept silent.
“Do you honestly think I can’t recognize the way the air changes when you are around?” Malik said, rolling his eyes slightly. “I’ve seen it so many times before.”
Zamir appeared in front of him. “I had hoped you’d have forgotten.”
“I never forget,” Malik said simply, and Zamir felt a rush of heat inside his chest and down his thighs. He smiled at Malik, lip curling upwards, and leaned against a nearby mashrabiyya, arms folded across his chest.
“What can I do for you?” he said. “Have you come with yet another favour that I and only I can perform?”
Ah, Malik’s blush! Zamir had never thought he’d see it again. Only the faintest of colour against Malik’s brown skin, but just as Malik knew Zamir’s presence in any room he walked into, Zamir knew all of Malik’s physical expressions, from his blush to his rare smile to the way he was forever touching his own fingers, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together as if to remember the friction of his own skin.
“Give the letter to me,” Malik said.
“I think not,” said Zamir. “And I won’t ask how you know.”
“Did I not tell you before? The court whispers,” Malik said. “Massoud heard of the letter from his guard, and I heard from Massoud, and ten other well-meaning men besides.” He held out his hand. “Give me the letter.”
“Why?” Zamir said.
“Now you need to ask?”
“It depends on what you plan to do with the letter,” Zamir said. “You see, I might have the slightest amount of interest in its contents.”
“I will give the letter to Fahim,” Malik said, and Zamir stared at him.
“So you do think I am a traitor.”
“No,” Malik said. “I trust you more than nearly anybody in this entire world. You would never betray me or my family.” His voice went quiet, careful. “But the letter does exist, and you can’t will it away. It would be wrong of me to let you. I would be encouraging petty thievery as a way to settle disputes, when in fact I am telling you to reaffirm your innocence through proper channels. Tell Fahim the truth. He will understand.”
“There are times,” Zamir said lightly, “when I want nothing more than to punch you in your pretty, priggish face. Have you no imagination? Have you no desire to do anything but what your father and your forefathers have told you?”
Malik’s eyes shuttered. “If we were peasants, perhaps.”
“Yes,” Zamir said, “if we were peasants. You would be a poet and I would be a farmer, and we could grow crops by the Tigris and pluck olives from trees. What a life that would be. A home by the river, flatbread on the table, village children running to show us their scraped knees and caught fish. You ever think about that?” He let his voice settle on the last sentence meaningfully.
“No,” Malik said swiftly. “I never think about it. What would be the point?” He held out his hand again, and Zamir let himself imagine that house, that river, the sunlight warming the floors beneath their feet — he gave Malik the letter, wistfully.
They had feasted earlier beneath the high green ceilings of the Qubbat al-Khadra, sitting among spiced dishes, sour oranges, and stringed music — but no one was singing now. It seemed like the entire court had turned out to watch Fahim deliberate over the letter Al-Saadi had given him. They stood in the wings, watching in hushed silence, and Zamir found himself rather missing the performing monkey that had been brought in for the night of the feast. Monkeys were delightful. Abbasid courtiers would not know delight if it paraded before them and did a cheeky cartwheel.
There was Al-Saadi standing in a position of honour by the throne, flanking Prince Massoud, who had his head bent low, whispering to Malik. Zamir tried to catch Malik’s eye, anything to wean off the uncertainty of watching Fahim read — uncertainty matched by no little boredom — but Malik wouldn’t look his way.
Hadiyya looked. She made a desolate gesture with her fingers. Razi stood with the court doctors and waved.
Fahim finally cleared his throat. His throne was low to the ground and he sat cross-legged upon it with a studied casualness that made him look, for a moment, like the boy Zamir used to chase around and throw rocks at. Then Fahim glanced up from a frown, and the light pouring inside the Dome of Heaven framed the craggy lines on his face.
“Zamir,” he said sadly, “can you go anywhere without raising fire and chaos?”
Zamir straightened. He had been kneeling this entire time and his knees were beginning to hurt. “I try,” he said.
“But being djinni-bound, you can’t help it, is that so?”
“There are djinni-bound men who live their entire lives quietly and peacefully,” Zamir said. “There is nothing about the condition that presupposes a flair for dramatics.”
“Then it is just you,” Fahim said.
Zamir spread his knees for balance. “The sun travels from east to west, Your Eminence. Dryness gives way to rain. Camels grow tired after a long day’s journey. A beautiful woman is more beautiful as she smiles. And when you are young and powerful, there will be those who are jealous of you. These things happen. No one can control it.” A sprinkling of dust danced over his shoulder; he flicked it aside. “I’m not so young anymore, but my history is such that it draws attention and strong feelings. I sympathize. I know what it is like to want something you cannot have. But that does not make me a traitor.”
Fahim raised the letter. “You did write this, though. I recognize your hand.”
“Yes,” Zamir acknowledged. “And I shouldn’t have spoken such about your esteemed father. I was deeply hurt when he exiled me, but he was a Caliph, as you are, and the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, once said: ‘Hold firmly to my example and that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs.” He turned his head slightly. “So I am sorry to have maligned your father.”
“I must admit, I am not sure what to do,” Fahim said, and Zamir was prepared to gamble that every single one of his elegant, subtle viziers were wincing. But that was Fahim: humble and straightforward, he whom the old Caliph had loved best of his sons. Malik like water and Massoud like metal and Fahim like solid earth. “There is no real evidence to prove that you are plotting against me, but Lord Al-Saadi is correct as well: your presence sows dissension in the court. There are those who do not trust you, who say they cannot trust you.” With this, he glanced at Massoud. “You are one of my oldest friends, but I am Caliph first and foremost. If your staying in Baghdad does my court ill, then I would have to make a difficult decision.”
“If I may speak, Your Eminence,” Razi called out.
“Please,” Fahim said.
Razi stepped forward from the audience, belly wobbling. “It seems to me that Lord Al-Saadi has not provided enough for this to be pursued as a clear-cut legal matter, an accusation of treason as we would bring to the qadis.”
“I think so too,” Fahim said, and Al-Saadi’s face grew tight with rage that he would not be getting his judges and his trials. Zamir wasn’t so certain how he felt — the qadis had recommended his exile the last time, but they had also been the ones to support Fahim’s subsequent revocation. He could never tell which way the judges would point their noses. It appeared that recently they had lost old members and acquired new ones just as rapidly as the djinni-bound.
“It seems to me,” Razi continued, “that whatever problem lies here is a social conflict, a matter of rightful conduct under God.”
This time it was Malik’s turn to speak, and he lacked old Razi’s presence, his physician’s authoritative voice to ring through the hall. But when he spoke, no one dared to interrupt him, even if they had to stretch their ears to hear. “If this is a social branch of fiqh, there is little in the Qu’ran or in the sunnah to recommend how to proceed. The djinni-bound came after the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.”
“But surely we can extrapolate,” Massoud argued. He banged one fist into a palm. “If two regular men cannot share a court together, what would happen then?”
“Djinni-bound aren’t regular men,” Malik said. “May I ask for your opinion on this, Lord Al-Ikram?” He addressed a reedy scholar in black, who had been staring into the distance and who was suddenly extremely alarmed to be the centre of attention.
“Ah, um,” Al-Ikram said. “It is true that our predecessors of the ulema long ago decreed that as djinn and men are separate creatures, so must the djinni-bound be considered… not apart from sharia, never apart from sharia, but that they have their own considerations where there is no strict legal direction as laid out in the Qu’ran or the sunnah.”
“There is a tradition in the books,” Malik said softly. “From before the Caliph Al-Mansur built the City of Dreaming. I know it because I have read the records. When two djinni-bound have locked horns with each other and cannot be swayed, then they are to settle things as the djinn do, for such is in their nature, the nature that God has granted them.”
“‘For compare not the flower to the bee,'” Razi joined in. “It is an old legal precedent, used only once in the court of Umayyads.”
Al-Saadi’s voice sliced the air. “And are we Umayyads then?”
“No,” Fahim said, “but their Sunni scholars are to be respected, coming as we do from the same divine jurisprudence.” He pointed at Malik and Razi, the latter of whom looked as smug as a camel led to water. “What does it mean to settle things as the djinn do?”
“It means to best each other in power,” Zamir spoke. They all looked at him. His knees ached on the hard floor. “There are three tests, and whoever proves mastery of the elements proves mastery of men.” Bahija moved inside him in a sudden burst of interest. He could feel her murmur between the walls of his throat.
“Then let it be so,” Fahim said. “The victor shall choose where the loser makes his home, whether he stays in Baghdad or whether he goes.” He uncrossed his legs on the throne and smiled slightly. “And now aren’t we all curious. Once and for all, my dear Zamir, we will decide where you belong.”
“Your breath must come deep from the seat of your body,” Zamir said, drawing a line from his belly to his throat. “Then it must travel upwards, the breath and the burn. Do you see what I mean?”
Hadiyya was sitting cross-legged from him in eerie imitation of her elder brother on his throne. “Don’t make fun of me,” she said crossly. “Breathing is easy. Even small children can do it.”
“There is breathing, and then there is breathing with a djinni inside you,” Zamir said, cocking one eye at her. “It might seem easy now, but wait until you actually perform a piece of sorcery. A fire awakens in you — it’s not so easy to breathe then, trust me.”
They were in the concealed chamber again, and Malik was reading a small leather-bound book in the corner, pretending not to pay attention to them — though his wary posture and his occasional glances gave away that pretense quickly enough. He was such a dogged protector of his sister — perhaps it should have been Malik who was djinni-bound and in service to the royal family, and Zamir the prince. He chuckled at that wayward thought.
“What are you laughing at?” Hadiyya asked suspiciously.
“Breathe,” Zamir instructed her. “Don’t be so easily distracted.”
She straightened her back and took in two deep breaths. Zamir opened Bahija’s eyes and could see the paths of flame shudder through her, feverish red against the fleshy tones of her skin. They were crooked paths, which meant her Ilyas was likely a mischievous djinni. Well, all djinn were mischievous to some degree, but Bahija’s paths always ran straight and forthright, for she was a creature of action and not contemplation. Ilyas moved through Hadiyya in zigzags, and Zamir wished Malik would allow him to touch Hadiyya, to draw Ilyas forward with his own power, but Malik would no sooner allow that than he would allow Zamir to touch him.
Lovesick sot, Bahija murmured. Go and fuck some nubile young serving girl, or one of the handsome Mamluk guards.
“I’m considering it,” Zamir said. Unlike Malik, he wasn’t made out of stone. He yearned to be touched, to be kissed. The prospect of a pair of slender legs wrapped around his waist was more than tempting enough to briefly distract him from the lessons.
But he shouldn’t be thinking those thoughts when Hadiyya was around. Zamir might have been corrupted by the hedonist sins of Damascus and the greater empire, so to speak, but he knew how to be a proper lord. Sometimes.
“I am going to see if I can draw Ilyas out of you without touching you,” Zamir said. He flexed his fingers. Malik looked his way, and then looked back down at his book — a volume of homilies by the poet Abu Al-Alahijah. How boring. Zamir much preferred the work of Al-Alahijah’s contemporary, Abu Nuwas. Now that was a poet whose works Zamir had carried with him, even into exile.
“Will it hurt?” Hadiyya wanted to know.
“What, for me or for you?” Zamir said.
“I told you, don’t be afraid,” he said. “Djinn know when you are afraid, and they will never let you forget it.” He remembered the first time he had seen battle, and how Bahija had laughed until his skin shook. Just kill them, she had told him. They are shaking little boys, just like you. Slay them where they stand.
But Hadiyya would never be asked to do such a thing. As a woman, as a princess, as a secret djinni-bound. No one outside of this room would ever know what Hadiyya could accomplish, what lethal power would one day run through her muscles and tendons. There was sadness in such a realization, sorrow at triumph concealed, but Zamir was glad as well, in the same overprotective way as Malik. He used to know Hadiyya when she waddled around her mother’s ankles, begging for a taste of honeyed sweets. He would sooner draw her away from a battlefield himself.
He closed his eyes. Bahija, come to me, he commanded.
Why should I?
Come to me, you wretch, or I will cast you out back into the desert you came from, and I will shout to all the winds, for your brothers and sisters to hear: ‘This is Bahija, whom you detest.’ Here she is! Come see!
Bahija bared her teeth but came forward, and Zamir felt that familiar burn, embers starting deep in the breath of his belly, traveling up through his throat and outwards into the tips of his fingers. He raised those fingers to the air, holding his hand in front of Hadiyya. “Now, Ilyas,” he said. “We call you.” Then there was invisible spark-fire, a tremendous force like a storm rolling out from his body — the sound of thunder.
Malik drew a dagger, but you could never kill a djinni with a blade. Thousands had tried only to fail. Bahija burst forward from Zamir’s throat, a rush of black smoke, and briefly she turned and twisted in the air, collecting into the shape of a woman. They saw her then, in her human form: she was very tall and dark-skinned, with high cheekbones and gazelle-like legs. She lashed forward into Hadiyya, who shuddered and cried out, feeling the two djinn war inside her before Bahija reappeared, yanking out Ilyas with one arm.
In his human form, Ilyas was a boyish djinni, a youth with wide cheekbones. Let go of me! he shouted, but Bahija grinned and dropped him to the floor, where he pooled out in black tendrils, quickly trying to escape out the window. Bahija pulled him back, reminding him that he could never go far. He had made a covenant with Hadiyya — his body was tied to hers.
Hadiyya watched the scene with awe-struck wonder. “Oh,” she said. “Ilyas, is that really you?”
The boy-djinni sulked.
She reached forward and struck him across the face. Her hand sank into air, but Ilyas looked surprised anyway. “Stop hurting me all the time,” she said. “My body is big enough for both of us to share. Stop trying to stomp all over my stomach!”
Ilyas tried to stick his head between his knees, ignoring them.
Hadiyya swelled up in fury. “You! You! Listen to me properly, you brat!” Ilyas rose up to his knees and wriggled his bottom at her, which made Zamir and Bahija break into laughter while Malik narrowed his eyes, distinctly unimpressed with the whole display. They watched as Hadiyya crawled forward and attempted to spank Ilyas, which made him fly up into the air in outrage. The two promptly began a silent shouting match.
“Yes, yes, we know, no man should be sticking his rear out at a princess of the Caliph’s court,” Zamir said to Malik. “But what are you going to do? Chastise a djinni?”
“I wish that I could,” Malik replied, looking lost. But he had no power here. This was not his world, he had no djinni inside him that he would understand, and when Zamir next glanced at the corner, Malik had gathered his things and was gone.
Hadiyya and Ilyas were lovely, an entertainment that let Zamir think about something other than the three tests against Al-Saadi and the prospect of leaving Baghdad just as he’d made his way home. But he could only ignore it for so long — until the day came when Zamir was forced to show up for the first test, sliding into the circular chamber where everyone was waiting. The ceilings were high and vaulted, tiled in a blue deeper than the one time Zamir had seen the sea.
Before the room, however, he ran into Prince Massoud. They had both reached the door at the same time, and Massoud grew cold at the sight of Zamir, his hand dropping to his side as if even the notion of accidentally grazing Zamir’s arm was taboo.
Zamir studied him, the secondborn prince. Massoud and Malik were very much alike, physically. When they were boys, sometimes they would dress in each other’s clothes and fool unsuspecting courtiers as to their identity. As grown men, they were both lean and beautiful with the tragic inability to grow facial hair no matter how much they tried. Malik had long given up on the task and simply went about clean-shaven, but Massoud was still valiantly trying, gathering a few tufts of beard that dotted his jaw like a bristly rash.
“Well,” Zamir said. “I don’t believe we have had the chance to properly talk to each other since I returned. How do you fare, Massoud?”
“You should not have come back,” Massoud said.
“By all accounts, you should have stayed in Damascus, or wherever you were,” Massoud said. “Drinking, whoring, sinning — a man like you would have enjoyed himself immensely. I wish you had stayed and enjoyed yourself some more, instead of returning to bring grief to my brothers and unrest to my court.”
“I came back,” Zamir said, “because this is my city as much as it is yours. There was not a night that I didn’t dream of it.”
“If you love this city so much, then you should have been selfless,” Massoud snapped. “You should have realized that you are no good for it, and you should have given it up.” He lowered his voice, hissing. “You should have given Malik up. Do you know how much pain you bring him! With all your coy words and your lush lies. He is trying to be a good man, and then you come along to distract him.”
“A good man,” Zamir repeated. “And I wonder then, who was it that procured my letter for Al-Saadi. The person I sent it to is a trusted friend of mine. He would not have turned it over just because Al-Saadi asked him to nicely.”
“Al-Saadi is a better man than you will ever be,” Massoud said, and then he pushed past Zamir into the blue-ceilinged chamber, where everyone was gathered. Zamir followed on his footsteps, the last to arrive. Al-Saadi was already present, standing beside Fahim and Malik. Malik looked straight at Zamir when he arrived, and there was clearly worry on his face, an anxiety that made Zamir stop in his tracks when he saw it. Tenderness, always so dangerous, played a song against his ribs.
Razi had volunteered to be the master of ceremonies, and he began to speak. “We are all here now? Good! Good! Then we’ll begin. The first test is the test of everlasting fire. The rules are this: there there are two small chambers beyond this one, one behind each door.” He pointed to the two doors to his left, each painted the colour of milk. “In each chamber there is a bowl on a pedestal. Each djinni-bound must light a sorcerous fire inside the bowl, and that fire must last for three days without dying.”
“Seems simple enough,” Fahim said.
“Oh no, Your Eminence, I am not yet finished,” Razi said, wagging his finger. “While the fire burns, each djinni-bound will then go to the other’s chamber and create a storm. Fire-in-the-bowl and storm-in-the-walls. Not so simple then, I imagine!”
“It is a good test,” Al-Saadi said. “People seem to think that we djinni-bound are only capable of creating fire. This is far from true. God has given us a wide range of powers. We can summon water too, though it is more difficult.”
“It wouldn’t be a test if it were not difficult,” Razi said cheerfully.
“Precisely,” Al-Saadi said. He smiled a humourless smile and turned towards Zamir. “It seems fair enough to you, yes? If you have any objections, you should voice them now.”
“No objections,” Zamir said calmly. He looked to Malik again, and Malik looked back. Their gazes locked, and this time Malik let it, a question apparent in the bird-like tilt of his head. I will be fine, Zamir mouthed, and Malik nodded.
Zamir and Al-Saadi went inside their storm-rooms, Zamir the first one and Al-Saadi the second. There was, as Razi had described, a stone pedestal with a plain bronze bowl on top. Zamir traced the rim of the bowl with one finger before dipping his hand inside, feeling for water or oil. There was none. The bowl was perfectly dry. He went and closed the milk-coloured door behind him, plunging the room into an oppressive darkness, muffled and warm from the lack of windows. It was good this way. He was alone with Bahija, who said, It’s been a long time since we’ve summoned water.
“It’s been a long time since Al-Saadi has done it too,” Zamir said.
How would you know? You’ve been gone for so long, you have no idea what Al-Saadi can or cannot do.
“Fair enough,” Zamir said. “But if you think I’ve been away without paying for eyes and ears in the court to send me news, then you don’t know me as well as I thought.” He lifted the bowl and felt for its weight. “When I was gone and no one thought I was coming back, Al-Saadi grew complacent. Why shouldn’t he? He was the first-ranked djinni-bound, and there was no one to challenge him.”
How foolish, Bahija said. There is always the young come to replace the old.
She was right. It would happen one day to Zamir too — there would be some youth, a boy or a girl, who would come and knock him onto his back. It didn’t matter how good he became or how many tricks he learned. There would always be someone to take his place, whose flame burned fiercer than his. It was an unwelcome thought when he had so much pride, but one day he must come to peace with it.
For now, he lit his flame. The fire burned in the heart of the bowl, jumping and leaping. Fire was not as easy as breathing — it was easier. There were times when Zamir lost his breath, but ever since he was nineteen and came across Bahija’s voice in the desert, he had never struggled with fire. It could not burn him, it could not harm him. It was his lifeblood, his beating pulse, the only offspring he was likely to have. He watched the fire for a moment, making sure it was strong. Then he switched over to Al-Saadi’s storm-room and knocked on the door.
“Are you ready?” he called.
Al-Saadi emerged. “I hope your fire isn’t too weak,” he said. “It would be embarrassing for you if I knocked it out within a minute.”
“If you could knock my fire out within a minute, I would flay the skin from my body and sew it into a new tunic for you,” Zamir said. “If you could knock my fire out within a day, I would consider doing much the same.” While Al-Saadi narrowed his eyes, Zamir headed inside his storm-room.
Al-Saadi’s fire was strong too. He walked around the pedestal three times, circling the bowl and the flame, examining it. Al-Saadi’s fire tended towards a darker shade than Zamir’s, deeper hues of red and orange. There was also smoke that was beginning to fill the room, unlike Zamir’s fire, which was perfectly smokeless. Seven years earlier, Zamir’s would have smoked, but in those seven years Zamir had consorted with those even more powerful than he was, and learned many tricks from them.
Don’t celebrate just yet, Bahija retorted. Your fire may be stronger than his, but we’ve yet to see your storm.
Instead of replying, Zamir walked the peripheries of the room and touched each corner with his thumb, as was his habit. He drew his power together like a cloak. Creating water was a different experience than creating fire. Instead of drawing Bahija up through his throat, he drew her down, pulling her deep, towards his feet instead of his head. He cleared his mind. He wiped clean his thoughts. He made himself into a blank piece of parchment, an empty vial, and instead of anger — which could be used to create the greatest of fires — he thought of sorrow. Of his late mother and father, of the wars he had seen, of that day when the old Caliph had said, Lord Zamir, for your crimes of treason, you are henceforth banished from Baghdad. Only for my children’s love of you do I stay your execution. Leave and never come back.
And the night before he left, when Malik came to him while he was packing. I begged him, Malik had said. I got on my knees and I begged him — but it wasn’t, it wasn’t enough.
Zamir had grabbed him by the arm, yanking him around. Malik wouldn’t look at him properly. Why did you beg? You are a prince of the greatest Caliphate there ever was and will be! You should never beg anyone.
It’s not anyone, Malik had said. It was for you. And Zamir had kissed him then, clumsily, pushing their mouths together and listening to Malik’s gasp.
Please, please, please, please, he had thought, praying a thousand prayers in the space of a moment, for as long as it took for Malik to kiss him back softly, tentatively, just as graceless as he was. Zamir had felt like he would burn the both of them alive, falling in the beautiful softness of Malik’s mouth, until Malik came to his senses and pushed him away.
This is wrong, he had said, and that was the last thing he ever spoke to Zamir before he left.
It began to rain inside the storm-room. Such a strange sight, for it rarely rained in Baghdad and storms as these were even more scarce. But Zamir had seen parts of the world the others had not, had traveled all the way to the Persian Gulf. Winds stirred and hissed. It was suddenly cold, and Zamir rubbed at his own arms, tilting his head up to receive the rain. Water trickled down his forehead and into his eyelashes, and he listened to it pick up tempo, grow wilder and meaner, leaping against the shell of Al-Saadi’s flame.
Zamir lived inside the storm-room for the next three days. He created a shimmer of a veil that acted as a tent, shielding himself from the storm and the rain. He sat beneath it where he took his meals and read his books, looking up only occasionally to strengthen the storm in one corner or to adjust a piece of magic in the next. It was no exact science. It was hardly a matter of subtlety either — what it came down to was pure force, whether or not Zamir’s storm could be harsher than Al-Saadi’s, whether Zamir’s flame could stand longer.
The answer was yes, to both questions.
On the third day, when Zamir woke up shivering in his blankets, he looked up and saw a barren bowl, tipped over and fallen to the floor. He hadn’t heard it clatter in his sleep, but there it was: without fire, without smoke, and with the rain pouring all around them, the gales gnashing against the stone walls.
Zamir quickly felt for his own flame next door, reaching out for its warmth. It was still there, burning steadily. He leaned back on his elbows and grinned.
“Al-Saadi!” he called out, raising his voice through the walls. “There is something here you might want to see!”
And that was that, the first test done. Al-Saadi came rushing into his storm-room with the devil’s own displeasure on his face, pursing his lips together until they were as thin as string. Razi came next, followed by a handful of scholars and judges, and together they decreed that the first victory went to Zamir. Then they hurried off to prepare the second test, but until then Zamir had some time to breathe again. He returned to his rooms, lit every fire in every brazier he could find, and then climbed beneath his blankets until he was as hot as he could stand.
He was slick with sweat when he stirred from his nap. A servant girl was bending over him cautiously. “I am sorry to wake you,” she breathed, “but Lord al-Razi and Prince Malik are here to see you.”
Zamir yawned and climbed out of bed, scratching his bare chest. “Let them in.”
Razi swept inside. “Congratulations! I think that was the most enjoyment I’ve had in years, the look on Al-Saadi’s sour old face!”
“Are you even allowed to be here?” Zamir wondered. He went over and poured himself water, and then doled out two more cups. “You are the master of ceremonies — aren’t you meant to be impartial?”
“If you are so unhappy to see me, I’m sure there are many other wastrels at court I could go bother,” Razi said. He sat down promptly and patted the seat beside him. “Join me, Malik. Stop looming over me like a brooding palm tree.”
Malik looked to Zamir, taking in Zamir’s mostly naked state, the sweat on his chest and in his hair. “I am glad you were successful,” he said.
“I’m sneezing and coughing for my efforts,” Zamir said. “Razi, stop loitering on your fat old ass and come see to me. You are a physician, are you not?”
“You’re fine,” Razi said. “I am not moving.”
“Massoud is not so glad, however,” Malik interrupted. “I spoke to him earlier, and he near yelled my ear off.”
“When have I ever cared what Massoud thinks?” Zamir said bluntly. “He is your brother, not mine. And if you think he doesn’t thirst after the throne, then you are incredibly self-delusional and more than a little stupid.”
“I know he wants what Fahim has,” Malik said stiffly. “But he would never do anything to hurt his family. You think so ill of Massoud, and perhaps you are right for some of it — he is not as kind or as gentle as he once was. But he knows where his loyalties lie.”
“You’re right,” Zamir replied. “I do not know Massoud as well as when we were children. Perhaps he would never hurt you or Fahim — but he has made it no secret that he considers me the lowest sort of animal, and he hates the influence I have over Fahim.” And you, he might have added, but he was no longer so certain of what influence he had over Malik, if any. Malik who seemed to not care for him at all anymore. “He will do everything he can to work with Al-Saadi and ruin me,” he added.
Malik rubbed his fingers together without speaking.
“He helped Al-Saadi plant the evidence that led to my exile,” Zamir said mercilessly.
“I can’t believe that,” Malik said.
“It is very likely true,” Razi informed him sympathetically.
“No,” Malik said. “Massoud has his jealousies, but he thought of you as — we all once —” His voice went low and bitter. “We used to be so happy in this palace together. Do you remember? All of us palace children. We used to run in the courtyard and play pirates and djinn-slayers until our parents and nurses shouted at us and complained. Right over there.” He looked out the window. “I would do anything to have that innocence back again.”
“But you can’t,” Zamir said, exchanging a glance with Razi, who shrugged. He is yours to handle, his gesture seemed to say. “Not even djinn can turn back time.”
“Do you not think I know that?” Malik said. “I am so tired of this place. So utterly tired.” He stopped, gathering his thoughts back together. He licked his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. “Never mind. I grow sentimental. Congratulations again, Zamir, and be sure to focus on your second test. I don’t want to see you fail.”
The second test was the travel-by-smoke, and when Zamir heard it, a pressure eased inside his chest, for he was much more well-versed in this particular feat than Al-Saadi was. He was the one who had spent the past seven years aimless, whereas Al-Saadi had stayed in Baghdad. What use did Al-Saadi have the for the ability to turn oneself into smoke and cross great distances with the wind and the air?
“We have sent out two heralds,” Razi announced when they gathered before him. “Each herald is equidistant from Baghdad, but in the opposite direction. Al-Saadi will be required to travel and find the herald in the north. Zamir Al-Diya will be required to find the herald in the south. Each herald is waiting in the flatlands and easy to spot from above. When you find your herald, they will be holding a cup. Take the cup and make your way back to the palace. Whoever arrives first will be the winner.”
The entire court had turned out for the second test, unlike the first, which had been limited for space. This time, however, they were seated outdoors on chairs and stands by the esplanades. Soldiers, government officials, and students had shown up too, eager for a spot to witness the djinni-bounds’ return. Zamir looked up at the sky, wide and open. It was a good day to travel.
“Zamir!” Hadiyya hissed from the sidelines. He went to her, and she whispered, “Ilyas and I both want to wish you the best of luck.”
“The two of you getting along better then?” he asked, smiling.
“I had to try and smother him with a pillow first,” she said matter-of-factly. “Blades and hands do nothing, but threaten to put out his heart-fire, and oh! He listens now.”
“Vicious,” Zamir said, and resisted the urge to ruffle her veils affectionately. People were watching, and one of her ladies-in-waiting gave a pointed warning cough. Zamir wondered if they knew of Hadiyya’s new friend. He sufficed with a small bow instead, perfectly appropriate for a princess, before returning to where Razi and Al-Saadi were waiting.
Razi handed them both a candle. “On the count of three,” he said, and immediately launched into said count. “One… two… may God bless you both… three!”
Zamir lit the candle. He did it differently from the fire he had lit inside the storm-rooms — this time he made sure there was smoke, plenty of it. His little flame began smoking like a prodigious old man on a set of cushions, puffing black everywhere. Bahija stirred in excitement at the sight of it, and he braced both himself and his mastery of her, waiting for the right moment. When it came, and the candle had created a hazy curtain around him, he dropped his body and merged into the smoke.
It was painful. Every single time — humans were meant to stay inside their human form, and so tossing it aside meant tearing off his skin, his nails, his eyelashes. Zamir shouted out in pain, but he rose, rose, rose into the sky, thoughts scattered until he forced himself to push them back together again, reminding his new incorporeal body of who he was and what he was here to do.
The sun was a warm brand, melting him into the air. He twisted around until he faced south, and then he soared. Through alluvial plains following the Tigris until it met the Euphrates, and the fertile land was irrigated by nourishing lakes. This was the breadbasket of the region, where ancient Mesopotamia once had lain. He looked down at the grooves of water, whip-like shapes spotted with flat smears of blue, and right above the union of the two great rivers were the marshlands of Hawr Al-Hammar, where the Marsh Arabs lived, the Ma’dan. He could see their buffalo roaming below him, their fields of rice, barley and pearl millet, as well as their fisherman with their boats set afloat, who looked up as Zamir passed them, wondering at this strange tendril of smoke ribboning over their heads.
Razi had informed them earlier that the heralds were wearing orange, a bright colour sure to draw the eye from the sky. Zamir scanned the lands for orange as he traveled, wind whipping through him along with the sound of Bahija’s joyous laughter.
This is what it is to be a djinni, to be free from the flesh. You fly.
I don’t see the herald anywhere, Zamir replied.
They had not told him how far to go, for that would make the search easier, but as hours passed and Zamir began to approach the Persian Gulf, heaviness settled inside his smoke-body. It should not be this far, he began to say, and Bahija went silent, sensing his displeasure. He twisted and turned until he passed the city of Basra and saw the first glimpse of the sea, shimmering blues and green in the heat. He headed southwest from there, moving along the peninsula towards the direction of Mecca. Rivers gave way to desert land, dry dunes swimming beneath his vision, and not a glimpse of vivid orange among them.
All of this belonged to the Abbasids, and it was beautiful even when it was harsh, but Zamir stopped paying attention to the joy of his homeland and began to grow anxious. He moved faster, though he was quickly tiring, and he was no longer certain of the passage of time, only when day turned into night and Bahija said, quietly, Enough.
Zamir ignored her. He continued searching, traveling all the way to Mecca and then going north, though north was Al-Saadi’s domain. He arrived in Jerusalem in the dead of night, and by then he was exhausted, with little smoke and flame left to his will. He resumed his human form outside the city walls and stumbled to his knees.
Jerusalem was an Abbasid holding, and when they were boys, they used to squabble over it, along with the other great cities of the land. When I am Caliph, Fahim used to declare, I will give Jerusalem to Malik and Alexandria to Massoud.
And what about me? Zamir used to pout.
You can have Aleppo, Fahim had said, while Zamir scowled and pushed at him with both hands.
I don’t want Aleppo!
Zamir took rooms. When morning came, he lit a fresh candle and left, retracing his journey back to Baghdad. It was then, near the city of Kufa, that he finally found the herald, who was emerging from the mouth of a large cave, yawning. He yelped when Zamir landed in front of him, and when Zamir grabbed him by the collars of his orange robes.
“You were in the cave?”
“I — I was sleeping! I grew ill!”
Zamir didn’t believe a word of it. Out in the open, Razi had promised, and he smelled Al-Saadi or Massoud’s trickery in this. He let go of the herald, who fell to the ground, lifting his hands in supplication. “How much did they pay you?” Zamir asked, but the herald stammered his ignorance. Zamir took the cup from him without word and threw himself back into the sky. His temper rolled like clouds, and he cursed Al-Saadi and Massoud a thousand and one times.
The chairs and stands were empty when he returned to the palace, and he had to bang his fists on closed doors for anyone to greet him. Razi came running when he heard. “Why did it take you this long?” he cried. “Al-Saadi came back a day ago! You have lost!”
Zamir spat on the tiles, and Razi’s face fell.
“So many long faces,” Fahim remarked. “I think I shall throw a feast.”
Which was what he proceeded to do, much to the annoyance of the palace cooks, who scrambled to throw together the requisite dishes. But Fahim chose his kitchen armies as carefully as he chose his armies of sword and spear, and a night after the second test, the great chambers of the palace were groaning with food and music.
Zamir, still somewhat in a foul mood, turned up in a fine emerald tunic, wearing gold on his fingers and a ruby on his ear, a custom for djinni-bound ever since the first days of their covenants. He moved among the lords and ladies, the musicians and the dancers, the slaves and the indentured servants, the poets competing to see who could recite the Qu’ran more beautifully, all the while his head filled with an incense haze that permeated the halls. He ate grapes plucked from one hand by the other, stopping to chat briefly with Razi, and then Hadiyya, who sat demurely with the other women but whose eyes glowed when she saw him. He nodded at her. We can talk more later.
Massoud was standing with Al-Saadi and the other djinni-bound. The young ones looked eager to see Zamir, but then Al-Saadi shook his head, and they drew back, disappointed. There was the boy who guarded Massoud and the boy who guarded Fahim. The future? Zamir thought. But not much of one if they stay underneath Al-Saadi’s thumb.
If he won the competition, he would stay in Baghdad and banish Al-Saadi. Then it would be his responsibility to oversee the education of the young djinni-bound. Zamir rather enjoyed the idea. He could open up a school and invite djinni-bound from all corners of the caliphate, men and women both. During his exile, he and his friends used to speak of such a thing, hardly daring to believe such a school could exist. Even in cities where djinni-bound were celebrated rather than treated with mistrust and fear, there was a hesitance to allow large groups of them to come together and self-govern. Zamir would have to convince Fahim that there was no harm. There was a decent chance he would even succeed.
An army of djinni-bound was unlikely. Djinn were too independent to ever work together, and the humans who controlled them had too much pride and arrogance. It would be a disaster.
His head began to hurt. It grew more difficult to be charming, to flirt salaciously with the women and smile mysteriously at the men. It was unlike him, as he normally relished the opportunity to spend time with interesting people, but tonight he was in no mood to celebrate. He withdrew outside the palace, into the courtyard, where he found Malik sitting by himself, looking up at the moon.
“You managed to draw away from your many admirers, I see,” Malik said.
“Many admirers?” Zamir said. “Morbid curiosity, more like. They want to know who to bet on.”
“Some of them, no doubt. The others…” Malik smiled ruefully. “This court has always loved you. When my father sent you away, there were tears and wailing louder than the call to prayer.”
“Really?” Zamir said, delighted. He looked at Malik, who seemed relaxed for the first time since they had reunited, loosened up by the incense and the food and the music, which floated out into the courtyard in soft, sweet strains. “Do you want to do something?” Zamir suddenly asked.
“What do you have in mind?”
“Do you remember how we used to walk along the city walls?” Zamir said. “Let’s do that again. It’ll be quiet and cool there.”
“All right,” said Malik, and the two of them made their way to the walls in companionable silence. When they reached the defenses and were looking down at the rest of the city atop the Basra Gate, Zamir saw the yearning in Malik’s face.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Hop on. I won’t let you fall.”
Malik was uncertain, but Zamir raised his eyebrows in challenge, and so he did. He climbed onto the walls and straightened, carefully balancing himself so that he wouldn’t topple over and plunge to the ground below. They used to do this when they were boys, too, one of their many games. Malik moved along the walls, one step in front of the other, while Zamir walked beside him, admiring Malik’s grace, how Zamir didn’t even need to reach out with his power to catch him. Malik, he thought, was like an Egyptian temple cat.
“Do you really believe Al-Saadi and Massoud paid the herald to hide from you?” Malik said after a while, the night wind in his hair.
“I do,” Zamir said. “Al-Saadi hates me, but he is not a particularly clever man, nor is he rich. He needs Massoud’s partnership to function. And where is your sense of proper justice now? You were so happy to hand my letter over, and yet you won’t even criticize Massoud?” His tone was teasing, but Malik shook his head helplessly.
“It is too complicated. I can’t side with you against my own brother.”
“It would be much easier if we were on the battlefield, wouldn’t it?” Zamir agreed. “Just swing your sword and make your decision that way.”
“I used to hate being a soldier,” Malik said, “but now it is the only thing that is simple.”
“How is the Persian front, then?”
“We do well enough,” Malik said. “There are constant rebellions to put down but my men have grown used to the routine. Fahim talks of sending me to Iberia next, to handle old Umayyad supporters, or to the far eastern steppes where there are rumours of the Chinese Empire expanding again. It doesn’t matter. I will go wherever he tells me to, and gladly.”
“And your troops will follow you, I imagine,” Zamir said. “I have heard mentions of you. People say you are a fair commander who treat even the slave soldiers with respect, and that you are very capable on the field. So different from when we started. Do you remember—” And Malik surprised him by laughing.
“I didn’t know a sword from a stick when Father sent us out,” he said. “You used to call me a pampered prince, but you were never much better. With Bahija you were a force to be reckoned with, but hand you a blade and everyone ducked!” He laughed again. “There was that time I tried to mock you in front of the older officers, to save my own face. You were so angry, you broke my arm.”
“Not my finest moment,” Zamir said. “My apologies.”
“Well, I made you dig latrine pits for a month,” Malik said. “I think we are even.”
“No, it truly was rash of me,” Zamir said. “I was questioning the authority of my commanding prince. When I made you look weak, I made the Caliphate look weak.”
Malik snorted. “Trust me, you never made me look weak. Compared to your hot-tempered, carousing ways, I was a holy example of discipline and responsibility. Who do you think the men would have rather followed, you or me?”
“I would have followed you anywhere,” Zamir said amiably. His voice grew serious. “I still would. Wherever Fahim sends you, I will go.”
“What of your plans to stay and teach?” Malik asked.
Zamir met his eyes. “It is what I would like to do, in a perfect world, but it is not what I came back for. When I spent seven years dreaming in loneliness, it wasn’t teaching that I thought of.”
Malik’s face flushed. “We shouldn’t talk about this.”
“Why not?” Zamir demanded. Malik slipped from the walls back onto the ground, and Zamir stepped towards him, crowding him against the mud brick. He was larger than Malik, broader in the shoulders — but Malik knew how to fight and could have thrown Zamir to the ground if he wanted. He didn’t. “You kissed me back. That night.”
“A lapse,” Malik said quietly. “I hoped you wouldn’t remember.”
“Not remember?” Zamir said. “It’s all I think of.”
Malik’s body was warm against Zamir’s, an unfurling of heat between their chests and their thighs, but his words were anything but. “I doubt that,” he said. “Oh, I am sure sometimes you think of me, but I would be only one of many. It is hardly as poetic as you imagine it is. Let’s not turn stones into diamonds.”
“Poetry?” Zamir said angrily. He pushed Malik even closer against the walls, watching the pulse jump at Malik’s throat. “You and your poetry. Well, listen to this: Abu Nuwas was a great poet too. Shall I quote some of his mudhakkarat for you?”
But Zamir spoke, the words spilling from his tongue like a storm:
His waist is a sapling, his face a moon,
And loveliness rolls off his rosy cheek
I die of love for you, but keep this secret:
The tie that binds us is an unbreakable rope.
“Don’t ask this of me!” Malik said. He curled his hands into fists and pressed them against Zamir’s chest. “You know that I love you! You must know that. I have always loved you, but it is never enough. You want a carnal love from me, as a man loves a woman, and I can’t give that!”
“Tell me now that you have never felt lust for me or any other man,” Zamir insisted. “If you have never been stirred by passion, tell me and I will never bother you again. But I think you have,” he said, tracing a finger along Malik’s cheek. Malik shuddered. “It isn’t inclination that keeps you from my bed. It is fear, and I won’t let you drive us both to misery out of fear.”
“You are so sure of yourself, aren’t you?” Malik snapped. “That I am just waiting to tumble into your arms?”
Zamir leaned in, brushing their heads together. He could feel Malik’s breath against his lips. “You said you love me.”
“I wish that I didn’t,” Malik said, and when he lifted his head, Zamir kissed him. A soft, gentle kiss, slow and deliberate, sipping at Malik’s mouth like he was the water to quench a deep thirst. He felt Malik tremble beneath him, frozen in indecision, but Zamir kissed him for as long as he could, until Malik finally gathered the resolution to pull away and step to the side. His face was heated, his hair in disarray, and Zamir loved him so much in that moment he wished Malik’s father had executed him after all, because it was a love that spoke the same language as anguish.
“You never think of the future,” Malik said desperately. “Not the way that you should. You would ruin the both of us. And when you grow tired of me and wander to a handsome youth who is not afraid, with whom everything is simple — what about this is worth the risk?”
“What can I do to make you believe?” Zamir said. “I have been devoted to you even when I never thought I would see you again. Finally seeing what is between your legs is hardly going to change that.”
“And last night? Did you or did you not invite one of the guards into your room after dark?’
Zamir was silent. He thought he had been discreet.
“It is just a bodily urge,” he said after a while. “I was frustrated and sex gives me something to do.”
“You see? Just a bodily urge. It is not worth upturning our entire lives for. And Abu Nuwas died in prison for his exploits,” Malik said. He turned his face away. “I am going back to the feast. Please don’t bother me about this again. My answer, just like what is apparently between my legs, will not change.”
There were times when Zamir thought, This city is nothing but ghosts.
Malik only ever spoke of the past, and that had always been the essential difference between them, even when they were boys. Malik loved history, old legends, emulating the exploits of his ancestors, and Zamir wondered if he would always think of the two of them in that way as well. If, when he looked at Zamir even now, he only saw the youth, the brash companion dragging him through the iwans to play tricks on the elders until they shooed them away.
Zamir suspected that in Malik’s eyes, he would always be that immature boy, that gangly yet-to-be-a-man. Who would take that boy seriously? Who would believe his confessions of love-after-after and heart’s loyalty?
Seven years’ exile had frozen Zamir in the minds of the court. It wasn’t just Malik, though Malik bore the brunt of it. Occasionally he found it in his other friends as well, in lapses where Fahim confused his memories of Zamir as a child with Zamir as an adult, or when Razi would speak of books they both had read, except it was another friend who had read them, not Zamir.
They love you, but you are a stranger to them now, Bahija mocked. And if you lose to Al-Saadi, they will forget you entirely.
Perhaps that was Zamir’s worst fear, being forgotten. It was, most likely, an unfounded fear, for even in his exile he had not been unknown. Arriving in Damascus, he had made new friends in the city’s underground society of djinni-bound, artists, and rebels. They would often hold court in each other’s homes, drinking and reading and bickering over minor points of philosophy. They had been a ragtag gang, living by their own rules. Some of them had been sorcerers, some of them had been atheists, some of them men who loved men, women who loved women. Damascus was a boon — there, Zamir had learned to let go of an entire lifetime’s worth of strict moral indoctrination. There he had dallied, among others, with a beautiful djinni-bound matron who traced fire sigils into his skin, and then spent time with her sulky-mouthed son, who could bend like an oud string.
Yet throughout all of it, Zamir had thought of home. He would see men in the street who looked like Fahim under a certain light, and he would follow them without realizing, craning his neck for a second glimpse. He would see girls like Hadiyya with the hems of their dresses flapping in the marketplace. He would see Malik sitting atop a high window, book in hand — and Zamir would drown a little at the perfect curve of his sunburnt wrists.
Why do you want to return so much? his Damascus friends were always asking. They did you wrong, and yet you’re so eager to crawl back into their arms.
And Zamir would have to tell them that when he thought of Baghdad, it was not the past that he saw the most clearly. He was not Malik, longing for the simplicity of their childhoods. The reason Zamir wanted to return to Baghdad was not because of the past — it was for the future. Because when he thought of the future, it was always Baghdad that he saw, every single time. He was eclipsed by it. The weathervane atop the Dome of Heaven, turned to new directions. The walls, expanding. The gates, opening. The school he wanted to open and the man he wanted to love, every last glistening possibility in the city that was the centre of the world, the city of a thousand stories.
Open my veins, and you see that I bleed dreams.
A strange lull settled between him and Malik in the days leading to the third test. Zamir suspected it was partly guilt, for Malik never did like to speak sharply to friends. Though he might act elegant and stoic, his disposition was essentially sensitive. As such, he sought Zamir out in his rooms, waiting by the door until Zamir looked up from his game of chess against Razi. Malik cleared his throat. “Some of our old comrades are visiting the city. Would you like to go with me to meet them?”
“Do you mind?” Zamir asked Razi, who waved his hand.
“I know how you soldier types are. Brothers in blood and all that.”
“I take it you don’t want to come along,” Zamir said. He prodded Razi with his foot. “Too bad. I won’t let you stew in your own sweat all day.”
They walked down into the marketplace, the three of them. There were faster and more comfortable ways to travel, especially as the day started to warm, but Malik did not like fripperies. Zamir thought of his fantasy where they ran away to become farmers, and he laughed. What was he thinking? Malik would probably be a decent farmer, all unimaginative but rigorous. He would never forget to sow the crops or feed the oxen. Zamir, on the other hand, would probably lounge indecently about the farm and complain that there were no silk shirts to wear.
There were three soldiers waiting for them at a busy, crowded teashop. Zamir recognized them immediately as Akeem, Qasim, and Sajjad, the best foot soldiers in the legion. Akeem and Sajjad had once been slaves, but it seemed that Malik had changed that since, for they wore the easy looseness of freedom, pounding Zamir’s back when they saw him.
“You scoundrel!” Sajjad cried. “Sir, you didn’t tell us you were bringing this wretched pile of bones for tea!”
“Pile of bones?” Zamir echoed. “Well, that’s better than yourself! Look at your belly! How long can you march now without crying out for pastries?”
“Fuck you, Zamir.” Sajjad quickly glanced at Malik. “Sorry, sir. Didn’t mean to be so crude.”
“It’s fine,” Malik said, smiling slightly. “It’s far from the worst I have heard from any of you.”
“And it is not as if we’ve never heard you swear,” Qasim said. “Crossing the marshlands, our knees up the water, the camels screeching in our ears? By God, you cursed meaner than any of us!”
Razi grinned. “Is that so?”
“Malik has nothing but meanness in him. I thought we would all know that by now,” Zamir said. Malik shot him a look, but Zamir blinked innocently. They gathered around a table and ordered their tea, along with a plate of candied oranges and lemons, mostly to satisfy Sajjad’s endless love for sugar.
“We missed you worse than the devil,” Akeem told Zamir. “Lots of battles where we could have used a djinni-bound like you at our backs. To say nothing of your particular charms as a person.”
“Right,” Qasim snorted. “Who was around anymore to steal our wine bags and bed our whores?”
“You weren’t supposed to be drinking wine anyway,” Zamir said, sipping at his tea.
“A hard time I had enforcing that rule,” Malik said dryly.
“We are soldiers, not imams,” Sajjad declared. “We did try for your sake, sir. None of us wanted to wake up after a drunken night to find you scowling over us like an archangel who needed a bath.”
“One thing I certainly don’t miss about armying,” Zamir said. “The way the lot of you smelled.” He slung his left arm, the tips of his fingers touching the back of Malik’s chair. Malik glanced at him swiftly, and Zamir realized what he had been doing. He dropped his hand, only to find Razi watching them thoughtfully.
Perhaps Malik is right. Perhaps I am too obvious in everything I do, Zamir thought, darkening.
As if seeing the change in Zamir’s mood, Akeem said, “It must be terrible, this waiting to decide your fate. We’ve all heard about your strife with Al-Saadi.”
Zamir shrugged. “Many things are terrible. Your ugliness is terrible.” Akeem smacked him over the head. “You hit like a eunuch,” Zamir informed him, but then he said, “At least my future is in my hands, somewhat. I prefer it to before, when I had no say, when my exile was handed to me like a dish on a platter.”
“What is the third test?” Sajjad asked.
“A duel,” Razi said.
“Oh, that should be easy then! Zamir is one of us. I don’t know about this bastard Al-Saadi, but I don’t think he can match Zamir in a fair fight. Or a dirty one,” Sajjad added.
“I thought the travel-by-smoke would be easy too,” Zamir said. They all fell silent. He traced the edge of his cup. “But we’ll see. I don’t wish to think about it more than I have to.”
“You are an exceptional fighter,” Malik said quietly.
“And as I said, it is better than last time.” A corner of Zamir’s mouth lifted into a crooked smile. “Do you know, my parents died thinking I was a traitor? I couldn’t even come back for their funerals.”
“We know,” Razi said. “Malik and I made sure they were given every proper respect.”
Zamir leaned back. The steam of the tea wafted upwards like strokes of calligraphy, and he could feel its insistent warmth against his fingers. Bahija stirred in interest, summoned as usual by the prospect of fire.
“We’ll be there at the duel,” Akeem promised after a length of uncomfortable silence. “We won’t let you go through this alone.”
However, that was merely kindness in his voice, not truth. If Zamir was exiled for the second time, they would hardly choose to follow him. He would be on his own again. Better look into the price of farms, he thought to himself, finishing his tea. The others, deciding wisely to leave him be, changed the subject to Qasim’s growing baldness.
The night before the duel, Zamir slept without dreams. He sprawled upon the vastness of his bed and did not wake until dawn, the light painful against the backs of his eyelids. When he scratched an itch on his chest, he could feel the low rumble of Bahija’s anticipation. “Not yet,” he told her, and he ate a light breakfast of bread and olives, washing it down with water, which he then poured over his head while standing naked.
“And what shall I wear?” he asked her later. “Today will either be my triumph or my tragedy.”
The red, of course.
It was a deep maroon, embroidered with bronze. Zamir put it on, as well as his ruby earring, and then there was no use in dallying anymore. The sun had fully risen and the others would be waiting in the courtyard. Still, he made sure not to hurry. They could hardly start this travesty of a duel without him, and if he could make Al-Saadi hover on pinhooks for a bit, then it was exactly what he was going to do.
“Now we are all present,” Razi announced when Zamir joined them. Zamir took his position on one end of the courtyard while Al-Saadi took the opposite, wearing a dark blue tunic with swirling bands of silver. “The rules of the third and final test is this,” Razi continued. “The two lords of djinn shall fight with whatever weapons they have, save for weapons of sword and steel. They will enter the duel with their bound djinns and their wits, and by such tools one shall one triumph over the other.”
The royal family stood watching, surrounded by their viziers and their household retainers. Fahim looked like he had eaten something disagreeable to his stomach. His sons were with him, fidgeting with excitement. Massoud was smiling and talking to them. Malik and Hadiyya stood beside each other, and Zamir saw Hadiyya reach out to her older brother to hold his hand. Malik was surprised, but he didn’t let go.
Watching them, Zamir felt the pang of the perpetual outsider. Then he glanced at Al-Saadi, who was smiling the same self-satisfied smile as Massoud, and his will hardened. He knew he was better than Al-Saadi, younger and stronger and more creative, and by God, he was not going to lose what he had taken so long to build.
The first blow was fast and brutal, a tongue of fire whipping out the length of the courtyard. Zamir dodged it, tumbling to the ground. When he rolled to his feet again, he sent his own fire-whip at Al-Saadi, who deflected it with a snap of his wrist, his djinni Khaliq blowing away the fire with his breath. Zamir sent another stroke of fire in Al-Saadi’s direction, and when that was not enough, his following line of fire forked into two in mid-air.
Al-Saadi was not quick enough to deflect both, and fire sank into his forearm, burning the beautiful cloth of his tunic. It did not burn his flesh, however, because fire could never truly hurt a djinni-bound — the purpose of the duel was not to kill but to disarm, to prove dominance. If Zamir could attack Al-Saadi well enough to force Khaliq out of his body, then that would be his victory.
Whatever happens, hold tight to me, he told Bahija. Don’t let go.
I am three thousand years your elder, boy, she said. Now hush.
It was not as easy as that. Keeping Bahija within her bonds required both their efforts — even if Bahija on her own did not fumble, Zamir could. He’d done so many times when he was younger, and older djinni-bound would duel him like this, showing how they could burn Bahija straight from his heart with enough force and pressure.
Al-Saadi whipped fire at him three times, each in quick succession. Zamir swirled to avoid them and he sent three answering rejoinders. Al-Saadi twisted around, surprisingly graceful for a man his age, and his next bout of fire was not a tongue at all, but a ball flying fast and loose at Zamir’s head.
Zamir raised a wall of water.
They fought like this for what felt like an hour, simple and exhausting, parries deflected and shots averted. Sweat from the morning sun began to stick to Zamir’s hair, and his muscles ached, his knees rough from where they had been forced to the ground. Half of his tunic had been ripped away or burned, and there were black char marks on his skin that looked like tattoos. All he had to do, he thought, was fight Al-Saadi to exhaustion — but strangely it seemed that instead of losing power, Al-Saadi was only gaining more.
He shouldn’t have this kind of stamina, Zamir thought, sending a streak of wind to dissipate Al-Saadi’s flame. He shouldn’t have this kind of power, not from what I remember. The next blow from Al-Saadi was strong enough to sweep Zamir from his feet, and as he felt the heat roar through him, he fell, hitting his head hard. He quickly rose back up, just in time to hear laughter from the court. In fury, he pushed an entire wall of fire at Al-Saadi, stronger than anything he had yet summoned. It should have been enough to at least topple him, but when the fire vanished, Al-Saadi was standing.
And that was when he saw it: the two shadows.
Al-Saadi had been double-bound. He had Khaliq, but he had someone else’s djinni as well, borrowed most like, a second djinni twisting through his body, awakening right when they were the most needed. One of the younger djinni-bound, Zamir thought — how easy would it be for Al-Saadi, as their mentor, to pressure them into lending their power. Oh! And they had hidden the second shadow well, stitching it neatly behind the layers of Kahliq’s power, but now Zamir saw, and now he knew.
What to do about it? To accuse Al-Saadi of cheating could very easily come across as Zamir’s own jealousy. His reputation was on shaky ground — there was a good chance he lacked the moral character, in the eyes of the court, to be convincing. Fahim would take his side, but proving a double-bond would fall to a djinni-bound, and they were all under Al-Saadi’s control. All Al-Saadi had to do would be to look at his pupils, and they would be ready to swear to Fahim and all of the Caliphate that there was no trickery involved.
Surprisingly, Massoud took the decision from his hands. “Stop the duel!” he cried out, moving from Fahim’s side. “Stop it! Lord Zamir is double-bound!”
“What?” Razi said.
Zamir stopped, sweat stinging his eyes. “Hunting the tiger before the tiger hunts you, mmm? If I am double-bound, then how is it taking me so long to defeat Lord Al-Saadi? If I have twice his power.”
“I know not what devil’s tricks lie in you,” Massoud hissed, “but your brethren djinni-bound will tell us the truth.”
“No,” Malik said, “they won’t.”
Massoud turned to his brother. “This has nothing to do with you.”
“This has nothing to do with you,” Malik said, stepping forward. “I have said nothing until now, out of love for you, but this is too much. Do not insult Lord Zamir’s honour, and do not interfere with his tests.”
“You are blinded by affection for him! You see what he has done to you? A few sweet words and you are ready to challenge your own brother over him!” Massoud looked to Malik, waiting for a denial — for everybody knew how willing to please mild-mannered Malik was, how much he obeyed his older brothers. But there was coldness in Malik’s eyes, and precision in his every word.
“Yes, I would challenge you,” he said. “Leave him be, Massoud, or you will have me to reckon with.” The tips of his fingers trailed over his belt and his daggers.
Massoud fell into shocked silence.
The duel resumed. Zamir looked over the length of the courtyard, at Al-Saadi’s smiling face. He touched something inside himself, saying quietly, Bahija, you know what we have to do.
I never thought you would let me.
No, Zamir said, neither did I. He rolled the remains of his sleeves upwards, baring his scorched forearms, and when Al-Saadi sent a wall of fire, he let it hit him, the force of it scorching painful against his face. He had other things to focus on.
There were six seals inside him, the covenant that bound Bahija to his bones. Six seals separating him from the full force of her power, and he had created each with the force his blood — she had let him, waiting patiently all those years ago in the desert, when she first found a cocky boy lost from the rest of his party, lying in the sand, dying of thirst.
It will kill you, she warned. Your weak human body.
Zamir chuckled. There was another attack from Al-Saadi, but he dodged it, whipping around before turning back inside himself, to the spirit that waited within. As if I would let you kill me. I am not a cow to be butchered for your pleasure.
You are a stupid, weak child, she said.
“I am the Son of Fire,” he said, and he cracked open the seals like digging his fingers into a walnut shell, squeezing them out, listening to them break. The first seal, on the soles of his feet. The second seal, on the domes of his knees. The third seal, on the curves of his hips. The fourth seal, on the forge of his belly. The fifth seal, on the oasis of his throat. The sixth seal, on the crown of his head, and he wasted no time the moment he felt the great power plunge through him, a roar like the sound of a thousand soldiers, fire bursting through his every pore.
It was pain as he had never suffered it before, and in his mind he had returned to the desert of his near-death, the parched womb of his own rebirth.
Fire was mother and destroyer. It cooked food and burned soldiers. It marked endings and it shaped beginnings. He felt Bahija pound through him, fully free for the first time since she had purred to him, My life is your life, my enemies are your enemies. His ruby earring cracked with the heat. He brought a hand up to his mouth, tasting ashes, and then he swung it outwards and watched the entire courtyard burst into flame.
People were screaming, jumping backwards, scrambling out of harm’s way. Al-Saadi was watching, eyes spread wide, his two djinn frozen in confusion. Al-Saadi could undo his own seals, but Zamir knew he never would. It would kill him as surely as the moon rose each night to take the place of the sun. Zamir felt his own life starting to burn, fraying at both ends, but he held on grimly. As Bahija screamed her anger and her joy, lighting the skies in hellfire, he grabbed onto the edge of her power and dug his nails in, refusing to be burnt. She was his, and he would not let her.
The ground cracked beneath his feet. The sky shook. An ocean of flame rolled through the air, and Al-Saadi withstood it until he convulsed, bracing both of his djinns against it until his teeth were falling out of his head — and then the fire broke over him, and he was shouting, crying out, thrashing as his djinn fled from his body in fear.
I am going to make you pay, Bahija told them. Whips lunged out into the sky, grabbing both djinn by their tails, dragging them into her mouth while they kicked and struggled, dashing them beneath the sharpness of her teeth. She swallowed — Zamir swallowed —, flame swirling down his belly, and then suddenly it was over. Al-Saadi was fallen, the courtyard was destroyed, and Razi was clinging onto a faraway pillar where he started to clap.
In the end, he let Al-Saadi stay in Baghdad. It was pity that moved him, for while Zamir hated the man, having his djinni eaten by Bahija seemed like a great and terrible punishment of its own. He saw how it rendered Al-Saadi into a ghost of himself, and Zamir leaned in to whisper, “Now every day you will see me in these halls, and you will know that I bested you, that I am more worthy of my power than you ever were, that you were nothing while I was capable of everything.” And, for now, that was enough.
Fahim came up to him afterwards and embraced him warmly. “Another feast?” he said.
“Please no,” Zamir said.
“A surprise feast then.”
“I will strike you where you stand,” Zamir informed him, and Fahim laughed and told him to go take a bath.
The bath was the singular most wonderful miracle Zamir had ever experienced. He sank into it with a hedonist’s sigh, watching the water turn muddy black as the dirt and char fell from his skin. There were soaps perfumed in frankincense within reach, and Zamir scrubbed himself to a lethal cleanliness, and then leaned his head against the rim of the tub. “Bahija?” he called out.
“I am glad we had a light breakfast,” he said, and the two of them shook in laughter.
There was no celebration feast, but there were, nonetheless, streams of friends and well-wishers who all dropped by Zamir’s rooms that evening, bringing gifts and fruit and stories of their own excitement. I thought you’d burn us all up with you, Razi said, while Hadiyya drew him aside and begged to know exactly what he had done so she could replicate it, to which Zamir said, You are never allowed to do what I did. There was no feast, but it turned out where the court went, parties always followed, and the night passed pleasantly with everyone crammed into Zamir’s bedroom, talking and playing games and gossiping about how Prince Massoud had decided to decamp for Alexandria.
“He’ll be back,” someone said.
“But of course,” Zamir replied. “This is his home.”
Only Malik was nowhere to be seen, and Zamir hated himself for how he couldn’t stop looking. Every new person who entered the room, every new courtier who was apparently now a bosom friend, and Zamir looked for a lean, dark-haired prince, but he was nowhere to be found.
Malik came to him the second night. Zamir was lying alone on his bed, reading one of Razi’s tomes. When he looked up to see Malik entering the room and closing the door behind him, dismissing the serving girl who waited there — Zamir’s breath was tangled in all its shades of relief. Then he paused, for Malik was here but he didn’t look happy. He was stiff and uncomfortable, his face tense with misery.
“What happened?” Zamir asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I will never understand,” Malik said slowly, “why you want me.”
Zamir dropped the book to his side. “Oh, is that all?”
“Is that all?” Malik said. “Like you think it is so small!”
“It is small,” Zamir said, watching him like he would a wild animal. “Just a handful of words even. I love you.”
Malik closed his eyes as if the words were a blow. “You shouldn’t. You can’t. Do you know that my mother died while you were in exile?”
“I heard,” Zamir said carefully. “She was a wonderful Calipha. I mourn for her.”
“I imagine they told you she was sick,” Malik said. “But she wasn’t. My father poisoned her. He found her with one of her ladies-in-waiting. Yes, like that.” He lifted his troubled eyes to Zamir’s. “So you see? I understand the dangers better than anyone. It does not matter what I want. Everybody wants something. But I can’t.”
“Then you came here to tell me,” said Zamir.
“I came here to…” Malik swallowed. “I came here because I thought you were going to die. While you were burning, while everything was so bright, I thought that I would never see you again. And then I thought — just once. Just once, I would have liked to—”
Zamir felt his breath rush from his lungs. He walked to Malik and folded him within his arms, feeling Malik’s shuddering grief, his helplessness. “Oh beloved,” Zamir said, stroking his hair. “This is an ugly world, but there is still joy to be found in it. Why do you never let yourself have any?”
“Because I am a coward,” Malik bit out.
“No.” Zamir cupped Malik’s chin and smoothed his thumbs over his cheekbones. “You are Malik ibn Al-Abdullah, prince of the greatest empire under heaven, a leader of men. I would not hear of any insult against you.” He waited for a response, lowering his head so that their mouths were but a finger’s distance apart. This time it was Malik who gave in, Malik who kissed him, moving his cool mouth over Zamir’s like he was mapping foreign territory. Zamir groaned and kissed back, trying to be gentle and sweet, but it was too hard — this was Malik in his arms, willing for the first time, and the kiss soon turned hot and desperate, Zamir bearing Malik back onto the bed, limbs tangled.
“Can you conceal the room?” Malik panted, looking up at him with those dark, clever eyes. Zamir wanted to erase every last hesitation he saw in them, so he quickly got up and set his wards, muffling the room so that no one could hear it, no one could see it. He returned to the bed and kissed Malik again, wrapping his fingers through the curls of his hair before licking at the sweat of his throat.
Malik gasped, and then he moaned. The sound burned through Zamir’s bones. Bahija woke, but Zamir pushed her back down. Go back to sleep.
“Wait,” Malik said, putting a hand against Zamir’s shoulder. “Stop.” Zamir froze, uneasy, wondering if Malik was changing his mind already. But Malik was blushing, looking deeply embarrassed, yet also defiant, like he would clap Zamir in irons if he dared disobey. “You should know that I have never — I have never done this before.”
“It’s not so different with men than it is with women,” Zamir said, returning to kiss him, playing at the buttons on his tunic.
“No,” Malik gritted, “I have never. At all.”
Zamir stared. “Never?”
“Does that word suddenly have a meaning I was previously unaware of?” Malik said.
“But the harem—”
“Zamir, if you dare laugh, I swear I will go and we will never talk about this again,” Malik said, face flaming. “The harem, as you may have guessed, is not to my liking. I tried once. I couldn’t.” He turned around and buried his face in the bed. Zamir did laugh then, stroking Malik’s back with his fingertips.
“My sweet virgin,” he mused. “My chaste, untouched houri.”
“If I ever want a headache, I only have to listen to your blithering voice,” Malik said, but Zamir turned him back over and straddled his hips, grinning as he made quick work of his own clothes. Malik was glaring, but he never removed his eyes, and when Zamir was naked, he couldn’t stop staring. He would look to the side as if the furniture was vastly more entertaining, but his eyes would always dart back, and Zamir thumbed his own nipples to taunt him.
“You can touch me, you know,” he said, running his hands over his thighs. Malik was staring as if he had no idea what to do, which was exactly what he proceeded to say.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Here,” Zamir said. He grabbed Malik’s hand and traced it over his chest, his nipples. Malik turned bright red, but Zamir guided his hand over his biceps, letting Malik feel every part of him. Then he drew the hand down, to the curls between Zamir’s legs. Malik’s hand twitched, and he tried to pull away, but Zamir wouldn’t let him. A call for bravery. He placed Malik’s hand on his cock, wrapping Malik’s fingers around the length, and it was his own turn to shudder at the sensation and at the sight — those beautiful fingers touching him, like this, how often had he dreamed of this?
Malik looked unsettled, but he met Zamir’s eyes. “It’s not as large as I thought it would be.”
“Ha,” Zamir laughed. He showed Malik how to touch him, how to bring him pleasure, and Malik might be one step away from denying his attraction to men in general and Zamir in particular, but he was also stubborn and a quick learner. Like the first time he had learned to hold a sword, and soon Zamir was arching his back to give Malik more room, moaning openly at Malik’s tentative strokes. It was, objectively, probably the worst technique he had ever experienced, but heat was building inside Zamir’s head, warm and dangerous, and he was quickly ready to spend himself all over Malik’s slender fingers.
But he didn’t. He pushed himself away, ignoring Malik’s stare — half accusatory, half puzzled — and spread Malik’s legs. Malik immediately tried to snap them shut, but Zamir rolled his eyes and opened them gently, watching the way Malik bit down on his lip as Zamir positioned himself in between. He helped Malik out of his clothes, coaxing each piece from him before tossing it to the floor. When Malik was naked, Zamir was content to look his fill, holding Malik’s wrists down so that he would not cross his arms to cover as much of himself as he could.
“You’ve come this far,” he said. “You’ve already sinned this much. Why not make it worth it?” He stroked the hollow of Malik’s hip. “I can make you scream for me.”
“I doubt it,” Malik said, but he did cry out when Zamir took his cock in hand and showed him proper technique. Malik pressed himself deep into the bed, and Zamir could see the effort it was taking him not to arch up right into his hand. He smiled. It was Malik’s first time — all of this was probably too much for him and his body. There would be time for long and slow, but that time was not today.
Zamir took Malik inside his mouth, and Malik’s cry turned into a deep, shocked moan. Zamir savoured the sound of it, and started a steady, teasing rhythm, shallow at first as he teased Malik’s cock only at the tip, mouthing it with his lips, licking it up and down. Malik’s breath turned harsh and unsure, and it was then that Zamir moved a little bit lower, a little bit deeper. Malik moved his hips slowly, pressing his heels against the bed, but Zamir held his hips down, keeping him still. “Not yet,” he said, and Malik sounded so shaky, so beautiful.
No one had done this before, but Zamir couldn’t imagine anybody who wouldn’t want to, man or woman. Was it possible to see Malik standing in the middle of court, to see his highborn grace, and not want to go onto your knees for him? There were men whose cosmic sole purpose, it seemed, was to make you lose your composure at the sight of them, to stop you in your tracks with one sideways glance — and it seemed so very wrong that Malik had never let himself have pleasure before, because there were entire kingdoms of men who would line up for the privilege of bending him backwards and pounding that innocence from him.
Fuck them all. They would have to get through Zamir first.
He pleasured Malik with his mouth until Malik was making sounds as if he was in pain. Zamir moved his mouth over Malik’s balls, licking the base of his cock, anywhere he could touch, anywhere that would make Malik tremble. He went at him like a starving man picking fruit from a tree, unwilling to relinquish his prize for even one sound, slamming Malik over and over again with the knowledge of his own body, with the pleasure Zamir was giving him.
Malik’s fingers dug into the bedsheets, twisting them hard. Sounds were spilling from his throat, hoarse and overwhelmed. “Zamir,” he tried to say, but his teeth closed down on the first syllable. It seemed hard for him to speak. “Zamir,” he said again, and there was a note of wonder to it, a tenderness that made Zamir shiver as he lay between Malik’s legs, licking and slurping, until finally Malik cried out for good, pushing up from the bed, filling Zamir’s mouth with his come.
Unexpectedly, it was Malik who was the first to speak after, sitting up, delectably flushed. Zamir traced his fingers over his thigh.
“Did you—?” Malik asked, but he didn’t know how to finish that sentence.
“Did I what?” Zamir asked lazily.
“You know what I mean.”
“I have no idea,” Zamir said. “Did I win a spectacular victory against my mortal enemy, ensuring the poets will write of me forever after? Yes, yes I did. Did I just take you into my mouth until you lost your mind? I did that too.”
Malik pressed his lips together and looked pointedly at Zamir’s limp cock. “Oh, that,” Zamir said. “While you were spending. It was quite a sight.”
“I am not your campsite whore,” Malik said grouchily. “You needn’t be so lewd.” Zamir sat up and kissed him on the ear, before proceeding to then lick said ear with the tip of his tongue. Malik tried to shove him aside, but Zamir would not surrender.
He heard Malik’s sigh, deep-worn. Zamir kissed him on the mouth then, sliding their tongues together slick and wet, holding Malik’s head as he kissed him with the weight of all his dreams, the way he had longed to ever since he had first realized that his body had wants and what it wanted was this. “You lay with a man,” he said, between kisses, “and the world didn’t end.”
“That is not for either of us to say,” Malik said, but he stopped looking at the door and kissed Zamir back hesitantly, his fingers fluttering against the nape of Zamir’s neck.
“It didn’t end,” Zamir said — a kiss, a kiss, a kiss. “Not today.”
They were repairing the walls of the city. Engineers strolled on top while workers strived below, hanging by ladders to fill in where the sun had cracked the brick and the elements had shaved the smoothness into rough patches. Malik was overseeing the entire operation, sleeves rolled up, and that was how Zamir found him, giving orders to one engineer while turning around and discussing how best to proceed to the southeastern wall with another.
When he saw Zamir approaching, his expression changed only slightly, but it was enough. Zamir’s insides lightened with a load he didn’t even know he was bearing. “What brings you here?” Malik asked, tucking his slate with notes underneath one arm.
“Boredom,” Zamir said. “Sun. The beauty of the scenery.”
Malik’s eyes narrowed, but Zamir spread his arms to take in the entire view from the walls. “The grace of the heavens!” he said, but Malik gave him a look to say that he was not fooled, and he would rather Zamir stop it right now.
“And to invite you to dinner,” Zamir finished.
“I see,” Malik said consideringly. He lowered his voice. “Is anyone else invited to this dinner of yours?”
“I had not thought to,” Zamir replied. “Unless you wish it.”
“No, it’s fine,” Malik said, and Zamir smiled. Malik coloured slightly, turning back to examine the walls. Zamir left him alone to do his work — Malik was most in his element when he was left alone to do his work. It was only later, after the progress on the southwestern wall had been inspected and they were ready to move onto the southeast, that Zamir fell into step beside him again. They walked quickly, moving ahead of the engineers, until they reached the elevated chamber attached to the Basra Gate, where they were alone.
How subtle, said Bahija.
Hush, said Zamir, and listened to Malik speak.
“I accomplished three things today,” Malik began, gazing out into the afternoon. Zamir leaned his elbows on the window.
“The first was that I spoke to Fahim. It turns out he does not plan to send me to Iberia any time soon. Or to the east. I am sentenced to spend my foreseeable future in Baghdad.”
“Mmm,” Zamir said, watching the wind in Malik’s hair. “I weep.”
“The second thing I accomplished,” Malik continued, “was that I secured some patrons for your school. It is entirely necessary. The djinni-bound of the court are a sorry lot, their wits scattered by Al-Saadi’s resignation. We need someone to step in and command them to their proper glory. The Caliphate will not stand to be embarrassed by its sorcerers.”
Zamir played along. “Do you have anyone in mind to be their leader?”
“Actually,” Malik said, “I had thought to wander into a desert and bind a djinni myself. It seemed the most preferable of all the potential options. But it turns out Fahim does not agree with the validity of my plan.” He turned his head and smiled — there was a flash of boyish humour, and Zamir’s heart leaped. “It turns out I’m forced to offer the job to you.”
Zamir laughed, turning his body to face Malik’s more fully. Malik himself had turned, and they were studying each other now, waiting out the spaces between them — it had been a month since Malik had first come to Zamir’s bed, and it was still a strange, prickly thing, smaller than hope, more precious than fire. “What is this third task then?” Zamir asked.
“I realized something of myself,” Malik said quietly. “That I live small and you live big.” He looked around to make sure no one was listening, but still he gestured, and Zamir knew it as his cue to put up the wards of silence. It was only then that Malik spoke more freely. “I saw you today, with the young djinni-bound. You were so good with them, and they were so in awe of you. Then I thought of you going out into the world with all your talents and your beauty and your swagger, where you would never need to be bound by my fears and rules — and I couldn’t stand it.” Malik met his eyes. “I am as jealous as Massoud, as it turns out. Isn’t it terrible?”
“Ah, but your terribleness has never been a secret to me,” Zamir said, his pulse now beating so fast that he was sure Malik could hear it. Bahija was laughing at him in voiceless mirth. “I have known it since we were six years old and you pushed me into the mud and sat on my head.”
“I am sure you lie,” Malik said.
“I am sure that you won me forever that day,” Zamir replied. “How cheap I am! Mud and brute violence, that’s all it took.” He looked out at the sky over Baghdad, water-clear without a single cloud, Abbasid banners flapping in the distance. He could hear the engineers and the workers approaching, the sounds of the city in the full throat of its life.
“I want to come home,” he finally said, and Malik watched him for a long while, saying nothing. Eventually he responded by climbing up onto the windowsill, balancing there on his haunches. There was enough room beside him for one other person, so Zamir followed, except his balance was never as good as Malik’s, and there was a moment when he teetered and dropped back. “Never mind,” he said, “you stay there.” But Malik’s hand was already reaching for him, and with a crook of his arm, he pulled him up.