It was nearly two years before I returned to Karakhum, and it was not on some assignment for the Esar. Would that it was, then at least I could pretend I had not made the considerable trek of my own volition, and to a rotten part of the world no less. I did not make a habit of lying to myself, but in this instance, I imagine it would have been a comfort.
Surely I was mad. I had taken leave of my senses, or they had taken leave of me, and now I was here, once more in the scorching heat of the desert. The streets were crowded, lined on both sides by stalls and houses in stone as red as running pig’s blood. I was better prepared for the climate this time - having exchanged my high-heeled Volstovic boots for more practical ones, and wrapped a light veil around my head to protect my hair and face from the sun and sand - if not in full possession of my mental faculties.
I still wore the necklace the Esar had the magicians make me. It no longer pressed as heavily on my throat as it once had, the slight choking sensation gone. Instead, it had become a part of me, a part of my body. Unsurprising really, given the amount of modification it had already adapted to. Had my master decided to take back the necklace after my mission was resolved I would no doubt have grown used to losing my voice a second time, but I was thankful for the small kindness nonetheless.
There was something else I hadn’t been able to shake after the quest to retrieve the dragon soul. It was something I was much less accustomed to dealing with, as I had not been touched by other people’s lives and feelings before as I had on that particular assignment, and had not been since. With my new voice, it was possible for me to mingle with my peers, but I found that I preferred to observe rather than participate, as I had done when mute. In any case, whenever I spoke to anyone privy to the source of my voice I always got the uncomfortable impression that they were trying to catch a glimpse inside my empty mouth, where no tongue was shaping words.
As grateful as I was to retain my voice, so happy I would have been to surrender my newfound feelings. I despised myself for having them, for failing to ignore them. Were it up to me I would have taken the whole stinking, pathetic mess, stuffed them into a mental box and shoved them out of a window at the back of my mind. It wasn’t experiencing emotions that unsettled me. I was human, thank you very much, and those were nothing new. It’s just that they’d always been completely centered around me.
I hated that I missed Madoka’s ox-like strength, Badger’s distrust and reluctant deference. I hated that I spent nights thinking about Kalim’s arm around my waist, his chest pressed tight against my back with the scent of camel and sweat and dragonmetal thick in my nostrils, with my hand between my legs where there was nothing to pleasure me. I hated following men’s eyes as they swept over my body at parties or in the street, assessing me and my relative attractiveness, and feel disappointed when they dismissed me as too skinny or strange-looking to be bothered with. I missed and feared to see a man’s eyes trained on me, dark and glinting, as if seeing through the many layers of my skirts and deeming me desirable nonetheless.
As I have said, I suspected I had lost my mind, and I was pretty sure this ridiculous want inside me was to blame. I would have called it curious two years ago. Now, I was no longer intrigued by the gentle frustration, as if enamored with its novelty. The longing had spread throughout my body, itching under my skin and making my teeth hurt. It demanded some kind of satisfaction and it seemed it was through being denied.
I may have arrived in Karakhum, but I may as well have still been in Volstov for all I was likely to run into Kalim here. His fellow tribesmen refused to travel into the city and with the members of our impromptu search party returned to their respective lives I could not imagine he had much business in the city. All the nomads required they could scrape from the desert and their animals.
The prospect of trying to locate a migrating group of people in an infinity of unbearable heat and sand was no pleasant one, yet I was confident that my experience in sniffing out information I needed would not let me down. Sure enough, after a few inquiries made to a number of carefully-chosen tradesmen I was directed to an unassuming establishment just off the main road and encouraged to take my questions there.
Inside the building it was quiet and dark. It was decorated with pillows and low tables in the usual style of the city, with transparent brightly-colored curtains separating the different seats. With the low ceiling and the thick cloud of smoke that rolled out to meet me, I at first mistook it for an opium den. On closer inspection, there were strange-looking glass jugs on each table, a spicy smoke drifting up from the boiling red liquid inside through a long spout, and the patrons engaged in languid conversation didn’t seem to be strung out on chemicals. It appeared to be some sort of smoking room, where the brighter minds of the capital came to exchange ideas and discuss their business ventures.
I had to weave my way through a haze of cotton and silks before I spotted my man at the back, seated behind what appeared to be the desert approximation of a bar. He regarded me curiously as I seated myself in front of him, legs crossed in mirror of his posture, and ordered one of the sweeter wines. Between my pale skin and limited vocabulary I had no hope of convincing him I was a local, which spared my sensitive Volstov palate from the more fiery brews preferred by desert folk.
The man, whom I knew to be called Hammad, was dressed in simple cotton robes that hid most of his sun-darkened skin apart from his face. He had a pair of black, deep-sunk eyes, his lashes making them look like a pair of beetles set into his head, legs sticking out and all. The idea that they might at any time walk off his face was disconcerting, but I continued on unruffled. It hardly held a light to my own more unsettling physical assets (or rather, the certain lack thereof).
I ran a finger along the edge of my glass. “I’m looking for someone.”
There was an oasis about a four days’ ride into the desert that Kalim’s tribe frequented around this time of year, or had when Hammad rode with him the years before. My only hope, short of riding into the desert blind and following my nose, was that their habits had not changed much since Hammad had set up shop in the city. It was nothing more than an educated guess, but I was desperate and bell-cracked enough by then that it appeared to me as a well enough plan.
A distant, rational part of my brain remarked that if I was relying on chance or fate to bring me to Kalim, I was about as fucked as a cheap whore on graduation day.
It took a day to gather my supplies and make provisions for the journey, including enough food to last me two weeks (the maximum time I would allow myself for this mad excursion), and find a guide that would lead me into the desert. They were to guide me to the oasis Hammad had indicated and then return to Karakhum. With only the bland smell of the desert sand to interfere I would be able to find my way back on my own without trouble.
On the third day, they came.
Though the sand muffled all sounds I was by then so accustomed to the deathly silence that made the swish of my skirts seem deafening that I could hear them approaching. Far off, camels snorted, their paws thumping in the sand. I could smell him on the wind, not just the sweat and smell of the beasts, but the rich scent of his skin. The sensation set the fever in my blood alight.
The night was still young when the men crested the hill, thundering down into the indentation in which the oasis lay. For a moment their silhouettes stood dark against the night sky, made bright by starlight.They slowed as they saw me, no doubt surprised to find anyone else here, most of all a lone woman. Kalim rode at the front, sitting straight-backed and regal on his camel. It didn’t take him long to recognize my Volstov dress, even in the dark.
He let out a cry and quickened his pace to meet me at the waterside. At my side he dismounted hastily but with grace, his eyes never leaving me. “How are you here?”
I allowed myself to smile a little at his confusion, at his incredulous joy of seeing me, feeling it warm the pit of my stomach. “By camel,” I said drily, because while riding out here like some sort of no-hope madwoman was all good and well, I would still scrape whatever shred of dignity I could. In any case, it had never been my nature to make men easy around me.
“Of course,” he said, then shook his head lightly, disbelieving. “I fear the heat has finally got the better of me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I am hallucinating, no?”
“I take it you didn’t expect me back, then?” I teased.
I could tell Kalim wasn’t completely serious about the hallucination, but he touched a hand to my arm as if to reassure himself nevertheless. His fingers burned hot through my sleeve. I half-believed I could feel his pulse where we touched, though perhaps that was merely my imagination or the coursing of my own blood. The idea was fanciful, more suited to a dim-witted society girl with more pearls around her neck than brains in her head, and I berated myself accordingly. I cursed myself for coming here, for opening myself up to-
As sudden as he had the first time he pulled me to him, crushing his mouth down to press against mine.
I did not fight him this time.
With our lips locked together, my hands fisted in the soft cotton of Kalim’s shirt, I wondered what would happen next.
His hands pressed me to him at the waist, close enough to feel the bony jut of his hips against mine through our clothes. He moved and pulled me, as if to lead me somewhere more private, and then seemed to realize we had nowhere to go. Around us men were setting up tents and filling water sacks, a low hum of conversation and contentment drifting on the cool air. Kalim’s own tent was still safely secured to the back of his camel. When we broke apart both our gazes locked on it, and we broke out laughing at the doleful look the beast sent us, as if sorry it could not be of more help.
In the end, I think it was a good thing we paused.
We set up his tent together, larger than it had been before and more finely decorated now that he had been granted leadership over most of the tribes in this part of the khum. Though his accommodations were nowhere near as extravagant as my own suites in Thremedon (let alone some of the rooms in the Esar’s palace) the evidence of his position humbled me. I had to duck my head to make sure he did not see me blushing as doubt lit up my mind. I was a Mollyrat at heart, clawing up the social ladder through tenacity and stubborn ambition, and I had ridden out here essentially expecting the prince of the desert to lay himself at my feet. Who did I think I was, to take his desire for granted?
I had, of course, considered the possibility that in our two years’ separation he could have become unreachable to me. Perhaps he had married, or found another man or woman to suit him. Perhaps he had died, or been injured, or maybe he had left the desert life behind him and settled somewhere else, among the Ke-Han or in Volstov or anywhere else in this vast world. All these scenarios I had considered. What I had failed to include in my doubts was the possibility that he may now be above my station. I was after all just a foreigner, with no claim to great beauty or name, or even – when it came down to it - a complete set of body parts.
Yet, Kalim did not seem to dwell on this for even a second. His eyes were bright when they lit upon my face, his mouth and eyebrow quirked up as if he could divine my thoughts and found them amusing. The tent set up, we spent most of the night by the water with blankets wrapped around our shoulders to counter the evening chill. We talked for hours, and when we spoke, we spoke as equals.
Before I knew it, half the night had passed. A pleasant sense of anticipation bubbled in my stomach as he told me of his adventures, of the lords he had conquered and the grave robbers they had caught and the tales of a great metallic monster buried in the vastness of the desert that had traveled all the way to the city. Our hands lay between us, the pads of our fingers touching.
At last, silence fell, both of our laughs stretching thin as his dark eyes met mine. I could see myself reflected in them by the moonlight if I peered closely, which said something about the amount of space between us. A shock went through me, blazing up my nerves from my center, inundating me. I almost ran, fear and inexperience and want clouding my mind. When he leaned in his chin pressed lightly against my shoulder, resting there. For a beat, my heart stopped working and yet every inch of me felt alive. This was it, I was going to do it, I knew what he would say and I was going to say yes.
“Come,” he said, eyes dancing.
I went. I could not have done anything else. I had not come all this way to flee in the face of the thing that scared and fascinated me most. It was not a conscious decision when I stood, joining him on two feet. I had the slight impression that the lids of his eyes had drooped and it had simply happened, my muscles had moved without any input from me.
Kalim stepped forward, closer to me until we were almost pressed against each other, my skirts brushing his knees. When he kissed me this time it was softer, more tender, than before. Warm fingers against my cheek. A slippery tongue pressing in. Rough whiskers brushing the skin around my mouth.
I could feel eyes on us from around the camp, some people pausing in their conversations to study our embrace for a moment before their gazes moved on. As we had sat, speaking, at the waterside we had been the object of speculation, observations. My work, my secrets had led to a certain ingrained paranoia that had served me well over the years, so that I was conscious of the attention we garnered. Their idle curiosity filled my nose.
I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind, along with everything else that wasn’t a part of this man in front of me. Focused instead on the rich, deep scent of his skin, flavored with a desire that went straight to my head. On the thud of his heartbeat against my fingertips where they slipped into the V of his shirt collar. Nothing else occupied my mind for an endless time – a rational part of my brain estimated the kiss lasted considerably shorter, but that too was shut out – until I became conscious of a light breeze caressing the back of my legs. Kalim’s hands slid up the backs of my thighs, dragging my skirts with them, until they came to rest on my backside.
“Mmph!” I hastily pulled away, thwacking a fist against his chest and laughing.
He looked smug, the bastard. Head dipping, eyebrow quirked as he used his hands to pull me up a little higher, closer. I could feel him hard against my front.
It made me blush. “Not here.”
“I’d carry you,” his grip on me tightened as if to pick me up, “but I rather like my head where it is.”
“Smart man,” I quipped. His grip shifted from my backside to my waist, stroking there for a moment before releasing me.
We picked our way through the tents until we reached the largest one, set straight in the middle of the encampment. It would be a task to keep others from hearing. Not that it mattered. Not that everyone didn’t already know. With that display just now there could be no doubt about what it meant to enter that tent with Kalim’s hand in mine.
My mouth may have been short a tongue, but it wasn’t dead.
My palate was very sensitive, probably on account of it having been untouched for over a decade, as well as my gums and teeth. It was still strange to feel Kalim’s lips against mine, hot and dry, slightly chapped but not unpleasant. It felt strange to allow someone into my personal space after having kept my distance for so long. Above all, the feeling of pure want that stretched from my stomach all the way into my toes overwhelmed me. I wanted to be naked. I, who had never in my life allowed anyone to see me unclothed.
Kalim’s tongue sought out my teeth, pressing roughly between my gums and upper lip. I couldn’t help but moan at the sensation, surprising myself with the thin, feeble sound of it. I almost swooned back against the carpets but caught myself, the parts of my mind not yet on fire revolting against the submission running wild through my veins. Kalim groaned against my mouth when my teeth sank into his lips, not too deep but certainly enough to feel it. His hands clutched at my waist, almost tight enough to crush me before releasing and sliding down over the curve of my ass to palm the back of my thighs.
Half-expecting him to try and lift my skirts again I loosened one hand from where it was tangled in the front of his shirt to smack them away. Before I could succeed he was lifting me up by my thighs, one hand supporting my backside and settling me on his hips, where my legs automatically wrapped themselves around his waist.
“You’re sure you haven’t done this before?” he teased me, nuzzling the corner of my mouth with his nose.
My eyes had flashed open during that little maneuver, though our lips never stopped touching until it was completed. From the corner of my eye I could see my skirts billowing around our legs, layers of cotton upon lace – too much fabric, and all of it in the way. Still caught up on the novelty of the direction my thoughts were taking, I didn’t notice Kalim’s intentions until it was too late. He ducked in to kiss me again, then caused my stomach to lurch violently when suddenly he dropped to his knees, successfully startling a squawk out of me.
“Kalim-!” I started, then abruptly stopped when he leaned forward, gently lowering me down onto the thickly-woven carpets. His face was very close to mine and our breaths tickled each other’s lips. If I looked hard I could discern the sharp edge where black pupils gave way to his dark irises, the dim gaslight bringing out the deep golden-brown. Every nerve in my body was achingly conscious of the place where he was pressed between my thighs.
My determination, bolstered by the want and pleasure that made my limbs feel rubbery, had held strong so far, but it abruptly abandoned me as Kalim made to undress me. I wanted this, my nerves sang for his skin on mine, yet I could not stop myself when I stalled his hands on me. “Please.” To my considerable embarrassment, my voice was thick and choked.
“I have slept with men before, and with women,” Kalim said, mouthing at the curve of my breast where he begun to undo the buttoned front my dress, “do you really think anything in between will repel me?”
“It would most men.”
Kalim looked up, a smirk stealing across his plump lips. “Perhaps you will do me the honor of owning that I am not most men.”
“No, you are not.” I agreed breathily. His hands wandered over my body wherever they could reach, mapping out the parts of me his eyes could not see, and the scratch of his nails over my stomach I was surprised to find produced the most curious reactions in me. “How did you know, the first time?”
“Does it matter?”
“I need to know what gave me away.”
“You should not be ashamed to be yourself,” Kalim said as he pushed off my dress. Every single one of my muscles tensed. I watched him as he looked upon me, completely bare for the first time in my life, and waited for the flinch. The truth of the matter was that, though to me my body – with its slender frame, my bony hips, my small breasts and the withered remains of my sex between my legs – was simply that, my body and one that had served me well enough for my purposes through the years, I knew I wasn’t normal by any standard. I could not conceive of him regarding me with anything other than disgust, or shock, or maybe some morbid sort of fascination, and as such the hungry, appreciative gaze with which he swept my features threw me off balance. “You’re the most wonderful creature I have ever seen,” he mouthed at my stomach, licking a sharply-pronounced hipbone in passing.
“Flatterer,” I moaned. My objections, along with a vast number of other things among which were my control and composure, were fast jumping ship. “And I’m not. In my line of work, I cannot afford to leave an opening like this.”
“Hush,” he laughed, apparently amused by my insistence. “Come now, you have nothing to fear from me.”
One of his rough, dark hands pressed mine to his neck, where I anchored myself to him with a mix of relief and resignation. Kalim wanted to please me, I could tell from his careful movements and the way he explored my skin with a curious-but-grim determination. I think he enjoyed the challenge I presented. At least, he did not seem perturbed when the remains of my manhood refused to cooperate and only laughed at my embarrassment and raspy apologies.
“What did I tell you, Malahide? Don’t hide yourself.” He growled, pressing his smile against my neck. “Now, if they did not change…”
That last part appeared to be more mumbled to himself than to me. Not knowing what he was on about should have made me nervous, but in the nightly desert cool, in the flickering glow of the candles, I found myself trusting him. When Kalim sucked his thumb into his mouth briefly, his white teeth flashed in the sparse light, and I felt as though the carpets under my back had suddenly been yanked from under me.
He pressed his finger inside, watching my expression closely for any sign of discomfort. “…then this should work.”
To my everlasting amazement, it did.
“Will you stay?”
“You know I won’t.”
“Tonight,” I agreed. “And tomorrow. I have a few days before I have to go.”
Kalim rolled over at that, supporting himself over me on one hand planted next to my ear. “We’ll see,” he said, his voice rumbling against my lips as he kissed me deeply and set about convincing me.