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Defy Not the Stars

Chapter Text


You came suddenly like resurrection,
like an infinite blessing
and my thoughts burned like trees on fire.
You came today like God Himself,
generous and full of grace,
holding the key to my freedom in your hands.

--Rumi

***

The Sultan's palace, Basra

***

"Yassamin! Come back this instant! We'll be late!"

But Yassamin isn't listening. Giggling, she escapes her aunt through a secret passage only she knows of, one hidden behind a lion-mouthed washbasin. The entrance is too small for an adult, but can just about accommodate a ten-year-old. She'd found it when following one of the cats around the palace, and there is indeed an orange tabby crouching beside her this very moment, grumbling as Yassamin squirms in next to him.

She lifts her finger to her lips and glares at the cat sternly. "Shh!"

"Yassamin!" Her aunt's silks rustle against the basin, then retreat to the other end of the room as she looks for her in vain. "Yassamin! They're waiting for you!"

But Yassamin could not care less. There's some dreary court feast being held tonight, and she would rather suffocate in the corridor than attend one more event of the sort. Her bleeding had started this year, which meant the women of her family had declared her a young woman, now, and that had also meant she now had to take part in the life of the court proper. At first, she had been excited to see more of the world beyond the harem, to join the world of the grown-ups. But when it turned out most of this new life of hers consisted of being introduced to the withered old harpies of Basra's ruling families and having to listen to the gossip of other princesses, one dim-witted parrot after another, she had started to prefer the harem's garden and its library more and more.

But her aunt knows to look for her in those places, now, so Yassamin crawls along the corridor towards where she knows nobody will be looking for her: the men's quarters. The last time she was here, she had recognised them for such from the low, male voices she had heard below. However, once those voices had turned into the violent noises of a brawl, she had turned back, too scared to venture further.

And it is a low, male voice she now hears ahead of herself; she crawls towards it, fancying herself the clever mistress of a folktale off to an amorous tryst. For what else could this corridor have been built for, if not for secret lovers' meetings? Yet here, she cannot be seen, and can observe the scene below herself from a safe vantage point, taking part in adult adventures while herself still but a child.

The latticework window she now seats herself behind sits within the bed alcove of a richly decorated guest bedroom. The occupant of the room is just entering, too, and not a little drunk by the sound of it. As the man staggers into the light, Yassamin can tell by his clothes that he must be one of the important guests arrived from Baghdad today. He is wearing the black robes of the Caliphate's civil servant class, but the robes are so heavily embroidered, his turban so full of pearls and gems that he must be no less than a high-ranking vizier.

The man pours himself a bowl of wine and slouches upon the low bed, patting the cushions beside himself. "Come now, boy. Don't be shy."

The slave boy who had followed him into the room hesitates; he steps closer to the man, but does not take a seat. He only glances at the doorway and wrings his hands, speaking to the man in the soft voice of an adolescent. "But, master, the Sultan's viziers are expecting you."

"Leave them to my brother." The man waves his hand dismissively. "He is the one who came here for politics; I only came here for pleasure."

"But, master, they are looking for you right now!"

It is then that a chamberlain, one of her father's black eunuchs, does indeed appear in the doorway. "My lord al-Fadl, of the house of Barmak? Your brother requests your presence at the Diwan."

"Tell him to shove the Diwan up his arse!" the man barks. "Jaffar is a grown man; he can take care of the viziers himself." He yanks the youth by the arm and despite the latter's protests, he pulls him roughly into his lap. "Can't you see I'm busy with foreign affairs?" he laughs and snorts at his own joke. "Go, now. Tell Jaffar I am down with catarrh or something of the sort. He will understand." He plants a wet kiss on the boy's cheek, still addressing the chamberlain. "There's a hundred gold dinars in it for you if you invent an even better excuse."

The chamberlain grins and bows deeply. "To hear is to obey, master."

And it is then that the man they'd addressed as Fadl goes to the door and locks it, and all hair on Yassamin's body stands on end. This is no longer a play-adventure, no: she is about to witness two people having sex. Real, adult sex. Mesmerised, she watches as Fadl pulls off his turban and robes, kicks off his shoes and stands in the centre of the room in but his under-drawers. Yassamin has seen pictures of men and women loving each other in books, has heard of sodomites, but has never--

"Come here, little one. I've heard tell many a tale of the boys of Basra; would you let me down, now?"

The boy is more terrified than Yassamin is, now--he is visibly shaking as he walks up to Fadl, shaking even more as Fadl undoes his turban. And who wouldn't quiver? Fadl is a frightening man to look at; tall, dark, commanding as only a true prince can be. Yassamin has heard legends of the house of Barmak, of their magnificent palaces, of their riches and their power, vaster than those of the Caliph himself. And at the centre of these tales had stood the wise Grand Vizier Yahya and his four sons: Jaffar, Fadl, Musa and Mohammad, the five of them the true power behind the throne.

Oh, but this is not a mere man she is looking at, but a legend, and a sinister one at that. Of all the sons of Yahya, Fadl--or so she has been told--is the most capricious, the most ruthless, rumoured to be after the throne itself. And now, Yassamin does not doubt these stories for a moment, for it is the face of an emperor she is looking at; one drawn with bold, virile strokes. Long black curls, streaked with gray, fall down either side of his broad jaw, and underneath his sharp black brows, his eyes are an unnatural blue, a blue so bright and cruel it stings her eyes like the midday sky. She has only ever seen blue eyes on Circassian slave girls, or those brought in by the Northmen; to see such eyes on an otherwise swarthy Persian startles her. Fadl grins at the boy through his neatly-trimmed beard and his mouth, too, seems made of cruelty; it is but a thin, red, lopsided slash framing his teeth.

And the rest of him--oh, Yassamin cannot bear to look, but she cannot lower her gaze either. It's her first sight of a grown man in such a state of undress, and she finds it fascinating: Fadl's flesh is not soft and feminine like a eunuch's, but his muscles seem strong and firm underneath his olive skin. She has only seen horses with such well-defined muscles, and she feels like such a child for even having made that connection; yet it's all she can think of.

And like an animal, Fadl now grunts and huffs as he pulls the boy into a kiss. It disgusts Yassamin, turns her stomach, yet something coils between her legs, some warmth not entirely from horror.

"There. That's not so bad, is it?" Fadl murmurs as he pulls free and unbuttons the boy's jacket.

But the boy is now shaking, stuttering from fright. "I would not--I would not let you down, master, but--"

"Shush," Fadl says and pulls the jacket down the boy's shoulders, undoing his sash. "You have done this before, haven't you?"

"I have, but--"

"Well, then. What's the--oh!" Fadl bursts into laughter as he tosses the boy's shirt aside.

Yassamin's eyes fly wide as she realises this is no boy: it's one of the slave girls who but dress as boys, to imitate the latest court fashions of Baghdad.

The girl yelps and covers her tiny breasts with her hands, averting her gaze. "I told you, master," she whimpers. "Please don't hurt me, I--"

"Come, now." Fadl lifts the girl's chin; his voice is soft, warm. "Why should I? It's true that I prefer boys, but I am willing to give you a chance. What's your name?"

"Nasrin."

"And do you know how to take a man like a boy does, Nasrin?"

She nods, and he puts his arm around her shoulder, companionable, now. "Then, we will get along just fine. Come, sit down with me and have a cup of wine."

How does a boy take a man? Yassamin is confused--all she has heard of sodomites' lovemaking ways have been the kisses and caresses mentioned in love poems. She knows of pricks and cunnies and has seen miniatures of at least a dozen ways in which you could fit the two together, but how two males could fit together in a similar way, she has no idea. She curls up tighter behind the lattice, trying to still her breathing so that the two won't notice her; the lattice is so close to the headboard of the bed that she is afraid even the tiniest noise might give her away.

But the way Fadl and Nasrin are now absorbed with each other, oh, she needn't worry: as Nasrin sips the wine and as Fadl caresses her back and kisses her, Nasrin's eyes start to shine with heat and she grows warmer, laughs more. Now, she even answers Fadl's kisses, sinking her hand into his thick black hair, marvelling at his broad, muscled shoulders.

"I am honoured to serve such a prestigious man, master."

Fadl empties the cup they have been sharing and sets it on the floor, smacking his lips. "Mmm. That's more like it. Do your job well and I might even take you to Baghdad with me. Would you like that?"

She laughs, a little too loudly. "Oh, master. If you only knew how many men have said that to me and failed to honour that promise."

Fadl quirks his eyebrow. "Clearly, that's but a reflection of your poor skill. I'm sure I could teach you a few tricks. Would you like that?"

She presses against him and purrs. "I would like nothing more than to be taught by you, master."

Fadl cups her breasts and kisses her slowly; Yassamin can now see his tongue as it slides into Nasrin's mouth, thick and red and wet. Her own cunny tightens at the sight and she has to bite her lip so as not to moan; she never even knew she could feel like this, unable to stop her body from reacting this way. She has only pleasured herself a few times by rubbing herself on cushions, but then she had always needed pressure to make her cunny swell this way, to make it clench this way: now it is merely this stolen, forbidden sight that does it to her, more powerful than any cushion could be. Oh, Lord, is this what awaits her when she finally marries?

Or perhaps this is something only slave girls get to enjoy. Fadl undresses them both so that now, they sit naked upon the bed, Nasrin in his lap with her back towards Yassamin; he never ceases in his kissing of her as he arranges her to sit upon his thighs. But as he brings his large, thick-fingered hands between her buttocks and presses there, Nasrin shrieks into his mouth--and behind her lattice, Yassamin whimpers a little, too, in shock as she imagines what his hand must have met. What kind of a sick monster would enjoy playing at the dirtiest part of the human body?

Fadl but chuckles and continues to massage between Nasrin's buttocks. "Oh, so you have been taking men lately?"

"But last night, my lord."

"Was he bigger than I?" Fadl lifts his prick and wraps Nasrin's hand around it. Her pale hand is tiny around it, barely able to wrap around its thickness: Yassamin finds herself craning her head to see it better, the mass of dark red flesh now swelling as Nasrin strokes it.

Nasrin laughs nervously. "I am afraid he loses to you in that department, master."

Fadl ruffles her hair and kisses her. "You needn't fear. There's some cream in my robe's pocket." He hisses as he curls his other hand between her buttocks. "Although you have slicked yourself already, have you not?"

Nasrin moans a little and answers his kiss. "I have, but a little more cream would not come amiss. Yet how am I to get to it if I don't want to let go of this, my lord?" she grins and strokes his cock.

Fadl but tightens his hand in her hair, looks straight into her eyes and pushes out his lips: he purses out a thick, white ball of spit and dribbles it all over his cock. The very sight of it is so dirty, so lascivious, so shameless it makes Yassamin moan into her hand, but thankfully, Nasrin is moaning, too: she trembles as she slickens Fadl's cock with his spit, then takes his mouth in a kiss.

And then there are no more words: Fadl pushes his fingers between Nasrin's buttocks so violently she is lifted up, wailing into his mouth and now there is no question as to which entrance Fadl had been talking about. He is hooking a finger, two fingers inside Nasrin's arse and presently, guides her to sit upon his prick. He takes his hand out and spits on it, spreads the spittle over his cock and then holds himself in place, staring into her eyes. "Take it," he grins, his eyes so wide they are those of a madman, "take it like this and I promise to take you to Baghdad."

Nasrin whimpers again, squeezing her eyes shut, her entire face contorted in pain as she forces herself to sit down upon Fadl's prick. That a person should be able to take something like that in there--Yassamin is horrified, yet her cunny is now so wet her thighs rub slickly against one another, a shocking wetness she has never felt before in her life. No wonder they had called sodomites unnatural, no wonder; how could anyone ever enjoy being the receiving partner in such a joining? She can see tears welling in Nasrin's eyes, her entire body shaking as Fadl cups her face in his hands and grins; his mouth wide, his teeth sharp, jagged, white. And it is at this cruelty that she can see Fadl's sack rising between his legs, his balls lifting against a prick that now hardens ever further--oh, he is enjoying her pain, supping upon it like a monster, drinking in her agony.

"What's the matter? Don't you want me to take you to Baghdad after all?"

Nasrin shakes her head. "Master, no, please; I can take it. Just let me breathe."

"Then, breathe," he says, taking her head by the hair and shaking it. "Breathe." But even as he says so, he guides his hand between her legs, to the cunny Yassamin cannot see, stroking Nasrin there. "Think of how much you want to please me, girl." His hand is now making slick sounds upon her cunny, his strokes violent, his hips lifting a little as he forces himself inside of her. "Breathe, and take me. That's an order. Do you hear me?"

It is then that Nasrin cries out as if she is being slain, her hips jerking as something inside of her gives and she slides down onto Fadl's prick. She goes entirely stiff, her wail cut short as she freezes from pain, her head lolling against Fadl's shoulder. Yassamin can see she is deathly pale, can smell her pain-sweat, even see how her entire skin is now covered in goosebumps. And there, between her white buttocks now parted by Fadl's rough, hairy hands, the monstrosity of Fadl's thick red cock, sinking inside her body entire. Nasrin sits upon it impaled, a victim, hopeless, helpless as Fadl kneads her buttocks, groaning out his pleasure.

"Good girl," he grunts, smacking her arse once, twice, then squeezing it with both hands. "Feels just as good as a boy's," he huffs into her shoulder, kissing it wetly, licking the sweat from her skin. "And I can feel your little cunt, dripping. Don't you dare lie to me, girl; you love it." When she does not respond, he smacks her buttocks again. "Don't you?"

She but moans into his shoulder in shame, her arms wrapped tight around him. "It hurts."

He smacks her arse once more. "Are you saying that because you know I like hearing that? Or because you like it when it hurts?" He thrusts up so violently her head lolls off his shoulder. "Answer me."

"Yes," she moans, and in what seems like revenge, she takes his hair in her hands and punishes him with a kiss. "It feels awful," she wails in mock-pain as Fadl picks up her hips and forces her to ride him. "You are splitting me in half, you filthy old swine," she hisses.

For that, Fadl snaps his hips up so that she cries out in true pain, then continues to slam her down onto himself as if she weighed nothing, as if she were but a doll built to satisfy his prick. "Fuck me," he snarls, "fuck me; show me what you are made of."

And now his prick sinks inside her arse like it had never been difficult at all; together, they lift Nasrin's hips so high that she can plunge down on Fadl's cock in long, deep strokes. A sweet scent drifts into Yassamin's nostrils and she recognises it for that of Nasrin's cunny: oh, she truly is enjoying herself, then, despite her protests. She rides Fadl furiously and he brings his hand to her cunny once more, the air in the room now thick with her scent, the walls ringing with the slapping noises of their thighs, their grunts, cries.

And Yassamin cannot bear it: she brings her hand to her own cunny, now, sits astride her fingers and rubs herself. She stuffs her sleeve into her mouth so that she can moan into it, her own noises now suffocated by Nasrin's as she shrieks, staring at Fadl in what looks like shock and hatred as her entire body convulses in his arms. Nasrin's little white breasts press against the dark hair of his chest; she sinks her teeth into his shoulder and screams and screams, trembling on top of him.

Finally, Nasrin stills in Fadl's arms, panting, clutching him. "Oh, God."

"Got you," Fadl hisses, licking his fingers. "And that was me being gentle, my child. But now, it's my turn." He slaps her arse. "Get the cream."

Nasrin stumbles as she lifts herself off Fadl. She falls onto the floor and makes to get up, but Fadl puts his foot on the small of her back. "No, no; don't get up," he grins. "I want to see you crawl to it. Show me."

And as Nasrin does as she is told, finally turning to reveal her cunny, the wet, plump pomegranate red of it, Yassamin gasps into her sleeve and comes undone. The last thing she can see is the wet glimmer of Nasrin's folds; she falls into release, one utterly unlike the simple spasms of relief she has felt before. Now, it's as if everything inside her hips is released like water from a dam, the vast mass of blood packed there rushing up through the rest of her body, freed; now, it spreads tingling ecstasy into her every limb, washing through her her over and over until she is breathless. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she is horrified at what she is now experiencing, but the pleasure is too overwhelming and drowns out her shame, leaving her heaving against the lattice.

Nasrin returns to the bed and hands the jar of cream to Fadl; yet, he pushes her hand aside. "No, no," he says and moves to lie down fully on the bed. "You put it on me."

And now, Yassamin can see Fadl's entire body clearly, his head so close to the lattice she can smell the perfume in his hair: a dark, cool musk of the quality only sultans can afford. Sweat gleams upon the black hair of his chest, upon the dark trail of it that leads down to his navel, to his shaven groin. And the odour of his sweat is now overpowering that of the musk, bitter and sharp in Yassamin's nostrils: she does not know whether to feel sick or excited, never having smelled a man in this state. But she is too fascinated, too aroused to turn away now as she gazes upon Fadl's prick, startled by the way it now jerks across his belly as Nasrin begins to massage the cream into his sack.

"Oh, you are good," Fadl sighs and lets his head fall back upon the cushions. "Come. Coat me in it; show me what you can do with those little hands of yours."

Nasrin kisses the tip of his cock as she lifts it into her hands. Her boldness shocks Yassamin, considering where Fadl's cock has just has been, but at least it looks clean as she now takes it into her mouth and sucks the fat, red head of it. And it's this act that makes Fadl howl, howl as Nasrin scoops up more cream from the jar and rubs it onto his cock with two hands, moving them in circular motions along his shaft.

"No more!" he cries and takes Nasrin by the hair. "You'll undo me."

Nasrin but laughs and licks her lips, rolling her wet palm over the head of his cock. "That was my intent."

"Don't think I don't recognise that trick," Fadl snarls. "You're not the first boy to try and finish me off thus to spare his arse."

Nasrin hisses, giving Fadl's cock one last suck despite the grip of his hand in her hair. Yassamin has never seen anything like it, a person enjoying being given pain so. She had heard it was an aphrodisiac to some, but had never believed those tales--she could believe a tyrant deriving pleasure from inflicting pain, but that a slave should tremble from delight the way Nasrin does, now, moaning as Fadl twists his fist in her hair--oh, the poets had been right to describe love as a thing shot through with madness! She cannot breathe as she watches Nasrin, the entranced look on her face as Fadl lifts her off his prick; Nasrin's eyes red, her cheeks streaked with kohl from her tears.

"Would you have my arse again, master?" she whispers wetly, strings of spit dangling between her lips.

"I would indeed," Fadl growls, twisting his hand, relishing her gasp of pain. "Turn around and straddle me, facing my feet, yes, that's it--so that I may see what I am taking."

And as Nasrin does as she is told, guiding his prick between her buttocks once more, Fadl moans so low in his throat the entire bed vibrates. Yassamin, too, can feel those vibrations, transmitted into her own body through the lattice; her cunny clenches again and again at this, a man touching her in this way without even knowing he is doing so. For it is a caress, and she is being made love to as well as she devours the sight with her eyes: Nasrin sinking down upon Fadl's cock with ease, now: her round little buttocks gleaming from cream as Fadl smears them with his hands.

"That's it, my girl, oh, that's it," Fadl groans as Nasrin lifts and falls and lifts once more. "Feels even better now," he mumbles.

Nasrin laughs and glances at him over her shoulder, stroking her own cunny as she rolls her hips upon him. "You enjoy me bending your prick this way, master?" she murmurs.

Fadl's answer is but a stuttering groan. "Fuck!"

"Then I shall continue," Nasrin gasps, increasing her pace a little and again, the speed makes her arse smack against Fadl's hips so that the noise of it fills the room. Fascinated, Yassamin watches the way the flesh of her buttocks jiggles, trembles as she rides him. Nasrin strokes herself shamelessly and Yassamin has to join her: again, she slips her own hand between her legs, astounded that she should find herself needing more after what she has just experienced. But she cannot help herself, cannot do anything except whimper against her teeth as she watches Fadl's gleaming, fat cock sinking between Nasrin's buttocks over and over, Nasrin moaning in delight as she shivers on top of him.

"You little minx. You came again, didn't you?" Fadl growls and smacks Nasrin's arse, then spreads it so that Yassamin can see the way her anus has spread, distended around his length. "Aren't you going to give me release?"

Nasrin groans, falling upon the bed for a while, her head against the sheets. "I shall," she groans. "What would you have me do, master?"

Fadl reaches forwards and takes her by the hair again, pulling her up so violently she screams. "Keep riding me," he snarls and yanks her into a sitting position, "milk my cock."

Nasrin but wails, shaking from the pain now as Fadl refuses to let go of her hair and starts to push up with his hips. "Milk me. Do you hear me?"

"Yes, master, oh, master--" and she rolls her hips, taking Fadl furiously, slamming her arse down upon him again and again, again as if in revenge for the pain he is now giving her.

And it does not take long to undo Fadl: he bellows deep from his chest, deeper and longer than ever before, his cock now streaked with white as Nasrin rides him, as he keeps on thrusting into her. Nasrin screams on top of him, realising what she has done, jerking as she keeps on stroking herself, her buttocks clenching around him in what looks like yet another climax.

"Master--!"

Fadl's hands fall upon the bed and he pants, his eyes closed, his chest heaving, his entire body now covered in sweat. "Come," he groans and tugs at Nasrin's hips. "I can smell your cunny from here; let me see what I've done to it."

Nasrin obeys, moving back upon Fadl, and it is then that Yassamin cannot hold back any longer: she cannot even scream; she is shaking too much, shaking at the sight that now greets her but from a foot or so away. The sight of Nasrin's arse, but an open black hole, her cunny full and as red as wine, all of her gleaming from arousal, sperm, sweat. Shocked, Yassamin watches as that perfect round hole now clenches shut into a little pink star, pursing a thick stream of sperm out of itself, its strange, alkaline scent filling her nostrils. And underneath it, the wetness of Nasrin's cunny, the overwhelming sweetness of it, sugared as Fadl now presses his mouth to it, sucks upon it hungrily as if it were a freshly-split fruit.

"I had forgotten what a woman tasted like," Fadl groans and smacks Nasrin's arse. "God, but you're delicious, girl, oh, you taste so good--"

But Fadl's words turn into a howl as Nasrin now lowers her weight upon him, sitting on his face, swallowing his softening cock into her mouth. Yassamin is utterly speechless, horrified, jerking in her own release so that she kicks, squirms despite herself. Yassamin's mouth is as wet as her cunny, yearning to taste all that she now sees despite being disgusted by it, at the sperm now leaking out of Nasrin's arse onto Fadl's face--and oh, God, Fadl lapping that up, too, as if it were but cream. The way he snorts, the way she huffs, smacks her mouth as they suck upon each other this way, oh--

Yassamin's foot slips and kicks at the lattice so violently the entire window is thrown open wide.

Nasrin shrieks and jumps off Fadl, hastily covering herself with a sheet. "What are you doing here?" she screams. "Get out, you little wretch!"

Yassamin's heart stops, and all she can do is cover her face with her hands, frozen, horrified. She tries to utter an apology, but all that comes out of her throat is a miserable little croak: she curls up into a ball, trembling from shame because this is not real--this is some nightmare--this cannot possibly be happening--

And Fadl, oh, Fadl. He but laughs, laughs so low in his belly it frightens Yassamin to the core.

He gets up on his knees and pulls Yassamin's hands from her face. The way he looks at her, the way his teeth and his eyes gleam in the evening light, the way his half-hard prick now bobs, wet--Yassamin lets out a little shriek and looks away.

Yet Fadl grabs her by the chin and forces her to meet his eyes; his terrifying, piercing sky-eyes. "What's the matter, little girl?" Fadl laughs, then leans in to sniff her, making all the hair on her body stand on end. "You smell as if you've been enjoying yourself." The bed creaks as he moves closer, clasping his prick in his hand. "Would you like a little taste of this yourself, hmm?"

"Master! She is but a child!" Nasrin screams.

Panic kicks Yassamin's heart, her limbs into motion: she extricates herself and runs, crawls away as fast as she can, Fadl's laughter echoing in her ears long after she has made it to the safety of the harem.

She collapses at the foot of the washbasin, shaking, still wet between her legs, too shocked to even cry.

Yet her noises have alerted the guards. She starts as she sees a figure in the doorway, but it's only Karim, her favourite eunuch. Not a man, not a man, but a sexless old eunuch, his dark brown limbs gathering her into their nest, soothing her, sheltering her.

"What's the matter, my little flower? What's the matter?" he speaks to her with his soft, melodious, fatherly voice as he picks her up in his arms. "Are you ill?"

When he brings her to her bedroom, she has to be sick into her washbowl, and Karim is convinced she is ill indeed: he doses her with sweet opium tea, tucks her in and watches beside her bed as she drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

***

The Caliph's palace, Baghdad

Five years later

***

It's well past the time of morning prayers by the time Jaffar wakes up. As soon as he does, he wishes he hadn't: he had lost count somewhere around the third bowl of wine the previous night, and now his head is plotting to murder him. His heart pounds in his chest and he smells awful--the Lord's own punishment for breaking the sacred law or not, it doesn't make him feel any more pious.

Or repentant. He fumbles for his bedside cabinet and pours himself a stronger drink of brown, distilled liquor mixed with fig syrup and opium. The Bronze Ghulam, he calls it, usually a tough enough warrior to beat any hangover into submission. He moistens a handkerchief with cold water, spreads it upon his face and falls back upon the bed groaning, waiting for the drug to take effect.

He hears a throat being cleared beside his bed.

"Go away."

But Masrur isn't going anywhere. He yanks the handkerchief from Jaffar's face and slaps his cheek with it. "Get up. The Caliph wants to see you."

Jaffar snatches back the handkerchief and spreads it over his face again, ignoring Masrur. "Can't the little brat wait?" Young people, he huffs inwardly--it had been Ahmad he had been drinking with into the small hours, and the stupid little boy must not have been affected at all to be up at this hour.

Masrur snatches the handkerchief once more and tosses it onto the floor. "He wants to see you after the noonday prayers are over. It's half past eleven."

"We've got plenty of time, then," Jaffar smirks and stretches luxuriously, rocking his hips. No amount of wine has ever had an effect on his morning erection, and now he displays it to Masrur with pride. He knows exactly how sheer his white, silken nightgown is, outlining every formidable inch of his cock as he twists and turns upon the bed. But Masrur can be so humourless at times, like he is now, refusing to drop the strong, mute executioner's facade he hides behind. Thus, Jaffar slides his hand underneath Masrur's leopard-skin loincloth, to the wonderful warmth between his thighs. "There's something here that could wake me up in but moments," he purrs.

Masrur rolls his eyes. "I'm on duty."

"Yes, and I am technically still your commander." Jaffar pulls off his nightgown, and despite Masrur's groaning, pulls his hood off, too, then draws him into bed. Jaffar knows he is being immature, that Masrur is the more responsible of them, and that's what irks him: Masrur should stop taking himself so seriously, executioner or not. Hell, exactly because of his occupation, the man should give himself over to pleasure more often in order not to be driven mad. Outside, he might play the masked, giant Ethiope striking fear into the hearts of men, but Jaffar knows him better than that; he would hardly be friends with Masrur if there wasn't a cultured, intelligent and passionate man underneath that barbarian exterior of his.

And it is the passionate side of Masrur that Jaffar now appeals to, for Masrur is also good at keeping secrets: especially that of the Grand Vizier of all Persia still preferring a thick prick up his arse like he was a pageboy, especially when said prick belongs to Masrur himself.

"The Caliph will have both our heads," Masrur chuckles--there, finally the man laughs a little!--and he shakes his head as Jaffar pulls up his loincloth.

"Mmm," Jaffar mumbles, too busy mouthing Masrur's cock to care. His headache is dissolving rapidly as Masrur hardens against his tongue, the musk of a man a taste much more pleasant than the bitterness still lingering in his mouth from last night. "We must make sure we slay each other before he does, then," Jaffar says as he draws back for breath, giving Masrur's cock a long lick. "From pleasure."

Masrur glances at the shadows upon the wall, and he has that look upon his face that means he is measuring time, damn him. "You have twenty-six minutes," he says, raising an impatient eyebrow. "The moment the call to prayer sounds, you and I are to be right there behind the Caliph, prostrating with him."

"I'd rather you were thinking of my buttocks instead of his," Jaffar groans and turns around so that he is straddling Masrur's face.

Masrur smacks his arse. "Blasphemer."

But Jaffar cannot quip at him; his mouth is too full. Instead, he only moans as Masrur spits on his arse and pushes a thumb inside of him. His cock is now fully hard, swaying and slapping against Masrur's chest, and he cries out as Masrur starts to move his thumb, to pull him open. God, his balls are full, but he can only cup Masrur's in his hand: there is nothing like an orgasm when you are hung over, and perhaps this is one of the reasons that he keeps on overindulging. He sighs and luxuriates in the fullness of Masrur's cock, now thick and hard in his mouth, stealing a few seconds of joy exactly because he knows they will have to rush.

"Where's the oil?" Masrur mumbles, sounding much more relaxed now, thank God and all his angels.

Jaffar groans and makes for the bedside cabinet, pouring the oil over Masrur's cock himself. "Here you are."

Masrur yelps in indignation. "Bastard!"

"I'm sorry. Is that too cold?" Jaffar smirks, innocently. "You yourself told me we were in a hurry."

"I am going to behead you myself," Masrur growls as Jaffar straddles his cock. "With the bluntest sword I have, so it will take several blo--oh--"

And then it's Jaffar's moan that drowns out Masrur's: it hurts to take Masrur inside his body this fast, with so little preparation. Nausea coils in his stomach as he sways on top of Masrur, light-headed; Merciful God, he hopes he will not be sick. Now, that would be embarrassing. He tries to think of the pain as an aphrodisiac, of himself as but a virginal pageboy taking his master's cock, and that helps a little. He breathes in deep and as he exhales, his buttocks finally meet Masrur's hips, Masrur's cock pressing inside of his guts sweetly.

"You're as white as a sheet," Masrur says, stroking Jaffar's arms. "Are you all right?"

Jaffar swallows, nods. "I will be."

Masrur smiles gently and clasps Jaffar's softened cock, stroking it with a firm hand. "Come on, then," he murmurs, his voice full of care.

And now it does feel better indeed: Jaffar moans as he picks up a good riding rhythm, sipping kisses from Masrur's lips as he undulates on top of him. He loves this, loves the way Masrur knows him so well he can stroke him with the most perfect of grips, match his movements so that they are soon both burning with pleasure, bodies warm and radiant from it. To think of this, that a male friend has been a better lover for him than most women ever have been--but that most only makes him think of heartbreak, and he curses himself. Even in the heat of passion, the fear and the horror that is melancholy threatens to take over him again. He is angry at that melancholy, angry at himself and rides Masrur faster, squeezing his buttocks around him, trying to impale himself on him so completely every inch of Masrur's cock will come out of his throat, so that he won't have to think--

Masrur sinks his hand into his hair and kisses him. "You're thinking again. Stop it."

Jaffar rests his forehead against Masrur's and groans. "I'm sorry. It's the hangover. You know how it fills the mind with needless fears, bad memories. The melancholy will pass in a moment, I am sure."

But Jaffar is softening in Masrur's hand again, even if he was close to orgasm but moments before. Masrur himself is not as hard now, either, but keeps stroking Jaffar, kissing him, rocking into him nevertheless. Again, he is behaving like a wife, and right now, Jaffar hates that--he has loved Masrur exactly because he is a man, so that he could forget about the female sex altogether.

"God, Masrur," he groans. "Stop it. Stop it. Enough with the gentleness. Just fuck me, do you hear me? Fuck me," he grunts through his teeth and rolls around, pulling Masrur on top of himself.

And at that, Masrur starts to thrust into him with the brutality of the bull. Yet there is concern in his eyes, and his face remains so serious Jaffar has to close his eyes because he can't bear to look at Masrur now. He strokes his own cock furiously, his knuckles burning against Masrur's belly, and tries to focus on but his arse. His arse, his arse, stretched wide; the amazing length and heat and weight of Masrur's cock as it plows into him, but now he feels like there is something sloshing in his stomach and he is going to be sick--

And it is then that the call to prayer sounds through the window. Jaffar screams in rage into the canopies, screams to drown out the muezzin's call, screams with tears of frustration in his eyes. But in his heart of hearts he knows that he is to blame, that it is he who has denied himself release, for Masrur would gladly have given it. He feels more miserable now than he was when waking up, and does not resist as Masrur gathers him into his arms and silences him with a fierce kiss, embracing him until his tears dry.

***

Fifteen. Ahmad is but a lad of fifteen and he thinks he can order him around like this? Jaffar scoffs to himself as he enters the Caliph's audience chamber. Ahmad would do well to remember which family it was that had put him on the throne in the first place--or, well, the family to which he owes his very existence. Yet, a puppet ruler was what Jaffar and Fadl had wanted once they had realised Amin was a pathetic weakling; the sooner he was out of the way and the sooner this child inherited the throne, the more easily could the Barmakids rule the Caliphate.

And now, just like every time Ahmad acts the stern ruler and inflicts his caprices upon Jaffar, Jaffar thinks of the night Ahmad had been conceived. Of how Fadl had snuck into Amin's bedchamber in the dark and pleasured him with his mouth, for Ahmad's father had been impotent with women, only responding to the touch of man's body upon him. Of how Fadl had spat Amin's semen into a bottle and how Jaffar had rushed to his quarters and transferred it into the dumbest, most dim-witted slave girl they could find. Little does Ahmad know he had his beginnings in a bearded mouth, an ivory syringe and the cunny of a hare-brained strumpet--oh, no; he must keep on thinking he was conceived in a royal bed. He must keep on thinking his mother died in childbirth and that his father died in battle and not by poisons and daggers. For Jaffar's mother had brought Ahmad up, making Ahmad his foster-brother, forging a bond as strong as that of blood, a bond that Ahmad was now compelled to honour no matter what.

And this is why Jaffar now smirks widely as he greets Ahmad with the usual litanies praising his wisdom and his judgement, calling him the guidance of all believers, even if it is himself he is secretly addressing. He prostrates himself at Ahmad's feet and kisses the ground, then looks up, smiling placidly.

"What is your command, my lord and master?" he asks, pleased with his own eloquence.

Ahmad smiles. "Arise, my brother. I have a mind to set out to do what you have been telling me to do for a long while, now. Meaning, I would fulfill my duty before God and take myself a wife."

"A wise decision, my lord," Jaffar says as he straightens out his robes. "Am I to take it that you have found a suitable candidate?"

"Yes and no--and this is exactly where you come in, Jaffar. For I have heard tell the Sultan of Basra has a daughter of fifteen, and that she is as beautiful as the sun and the moon."

"I have heard legends of the maiden, too. It is said her father guards her so jealously that no man has ever seen her face."

"And I am sure you are thinking what I am thinking, Barmakid," Ahmad nods. "If no man has ever seen her face, how can we be sure she truly is as beautiful as they say she is? Why, it could merely be old wives' tales."

Jaffar grins. "That is true; often nobles describe their daughters and sons as beautiful when you could find more beauty within the royal stables. What do you propose we do, my lord and master?"

Ahmad taps his fingers against his cushions. "I have seen the devices you are capable of crafting. Might you not engineer one that could show her face to us?"

Jaffar stills. Ahmad knows of his engineering skills, but does not know of his magics: yes, he could see into the royal harem of Basra with his crystal this very moment, but he would be a fool to give his secrets away to Ahmad. He must think, and quickly. He makes a show of it, shifting his weight from one foot to another, rubbing his chin for a long while.

"I have a proposal, my lord and master," he finally says, pretending humility.

"Come, what is it?"

"I would need your permission to leave for Basra. When I am within the Sultan's palace, I will make sure to find a way of capturing an image of her face, and shall then bring that image back to you. And even if I did not succeed in capturing her visage, I would surely find a way to snatch a peek at her myself at the very least. And you would trust my judgement on whether I found her beautiful, would you not?"

"You are a man of craft and cunning, Jaffar," Ahmad smiles and pats Jaffar's shoulder. "I know I can trust you. Come, let us prepare supplies for your visit."

"I am honoured, my lord."

"One more thing, Jaffar," Ahmad says as he steps off the throne and leads Jaffar towards the secretarial chambers.

"Yes, my lord?"

"If she does indeed turn out to be beautiful--it pains me to say this, Jaffar, but you do have something of a reputation."

Jaffar shudders. "I am sworn off women, my lord. Might I remind you who it is that my reputation concerns?"

Ahmad winces. "Please, do not go into detail. I am glad she is not a boy."

"There we are," Jaffar laughs.

"It is I who must apologise, Jaffar," Ahmad says, his hand tightening upon Jaffar's shoulder. "I, too, would have sworn off women if I--"

Yes, and if you but knew the details, you little fool-- Perhaps he should indeed tell Ahmad, if only to punish him, to keep him from ever bringing it up again. But no, no; the less he knows about what had happened in the very bedchamber he now sleeps in, the very events that had led to the Barmakids taking control of the Caliphate, the better. Let him think Jaffar had lost a wife in childbirth instead; let him think Jaffar had always preferred boys in any case.

"Please, do not mention it," Jaffar says, attempting a light tone, forcing a disingenuous smile onto his face.

Yet nausea and hatred curl in his stomach, twisting his guts into an ugly, black ball.

***

"I hope she's as ugly as a dog," Jaffar says as he returns to his quarters, shrugging off his ceremonial robes.

Masrur looks up from the game of chess he has been playing against himself. "Who?"

"The Sultan of Basra's daughter," Jaffar scoffs as he frees himself of his turban, unties his hair and ruffles it. "Our good Caliph intends to marry, and I am to act as his spokesman."

"And what if she is all they say she is?" Masrur says as Jaffar sits opposite him.

Jaffar shrugs. "If she is beautiful, there is a greater likelihood she will be slow-witted, dull. And that's exactly what I want. The worst thing we could have now was a queen too smart for her own good."

Masrur winces, yet he does not mention the name they are both thinking of: Zubayda. Harun's queen, the matriarch of the harem, as insane as her late husband. Killer, manipulator, ruling with an iron fist where Amin had not. She had survived so many attempts on her life she had begun to think of herself as blessed, and had thrown herself into furious piety in order to remain in God's good graces. Thus, she had installed dozens of women about her palace solely to recite holy verses every hour of the day and night, so that the entire palace had been humming like a beehive.

Yet underneath this saintly halo, she had always carried poisons and daggers about herself. And her greatest enemies had always been the Barmakids: she had hated Yahya the most, and rumour has it that it had indeed been one of her poisons that had finished him off but a few years ago. That had been the event that had finally pushed Fadl and Jaffar into murdering her son, and Jaffar still derives satisfaction from knowing she had swallowed one of her own poisons after she had heard the news. Officially, of course, she had died of a fever, but Jaffar remembers gazing upon her for one last time, her face covered in bloodied sweat--clearly the sign of arsenic poisoning--and cursing the Barmakids with her last breath.

No. He would not have another queen of Zubayda's ilk sharing Ahmad's throne. But he must be sure.

"If you'll excuse me, Masrur," he murmurs and gets up. "I would withdraw to my study for the rest of the night. "

Masrur embraces him from behind, stealing a kiss. "But I thought you wanted to finish what we started this morning."

Jaffar turns in his arms and groans into his kiss, hugging him tight. "Go to your wife; I am too tired tonight. Are you free to come to the baths tomorrow night?"

"I am, as of now," Masrur says and pulls him into another, hungry kiss before leaving.

***

Jaffar lifts his robe and his lantern as he descends the staircase to his study. The stairs lead precisely nowhere, but upon the recitation of three verses in dead languages and the drawing of three complex interlocking sigils in the air, a green door finally appears before him. He knocks three times and enters.

He has not been here for a while, and has to wipe spiderwebs from his face as he rummages around the room, looking for his crystal. He flicks his hand to light three more lanterns around the alcove he is now digging in and--ah, there it is, hidden under a cloth of blue velvet. He chokes on a cloud of dust as he pulls the cloth off the crystal, and he is still coughing as he sets it upon the floor, seating himself upon a bed of cushions.

"Now," he murmurs. "What sort of bribe do you require tonight?"

A soft, girlish voice laughs at him from the crystal. "Blood and marrow, sap and sperm, all of that within thee which rushes back and forth like the tide," the pairi purrs.

Jaffar rolls his eyes. "Be more specific."

"You shall find out out after," the pairi chirps. "What would you see tonight, man-pard?"

"This pard would see a gazelle. Take me to the harem of the Sultan's palace in Basra. Wherever the princess named Yassamin may be this very moment."

"To hear is to obey," the pairi laughs and Jaffar can swear he can see a girl's eye winking in the crystal as its red surface dissolves into a view of the harem's garden.

"Now, show me where she is. Which one?"

The pairi focuses the eye of the crystal upon the tallest of the maidens, the most regally dressed, busy shooing the other girls indoors.

"I wish to bathe in the pond," she says. "Do not disturb me until I call for you."

"Well, well," Jaffar murmurs to himself and makes himself more comfortable upon the cushions. "Not a moment too late."

The pairi has gone quiet, but follows Jaffar's desire to see Yassamin as close as if he were sitting right next to her. He cannot help but stir a little, for the princess is indeed beautiful: no, beyond beautiful. Her skin is a pale white, soft all over as she divests herself of her clothes, her hips wide and round, her breasts firm and full as she frees them of her jacket. And there is a natural sensuality to her movements, Jaffar finds: this is not a mere mechanical undressing, but she seems to treat this bath as if it were a tryst with a lover. All very promising, very promising indeed, he thinks.

Softly, she slides her clothes off her skin, undoes her jewellery as if to tease the pond, laughing as she shakes her long black curls free. And her laughter is deep and sweet, like that of a woman who knows of the pleasures of love, so unlike a virgin's even if she must be one, a pearl yet unpierced. Her teeth are a little uneven but perfectly white, her lips so full and voluptuous any courtesan would kill to possess them. Even her face is perfectly heart-shaped, her cheeks healthy, plump and flushed as if from lovemaking. The only major flaw Jaffar can spy upon her lies in the composition of her eyes: they are the colour of honeyed liquor, wide and almond-shaped but just a little too crooked, making her look as if she is drunk.

Yet, this pleases Jaffar, pleases him greatly. This is the rare sort of maiden that is a treasurehouse of amorous pleasures, one that could awaken into becoming the greatest of mistresses if were she but taught by the right sort of man. And despite his bitterness, despite his vows, Jaffar finds his hand moving to the crystal, tracing the curve of her hip, the cleft of her cunny: yes, he would be that man, would awaken this girl's body with his touch, unlock its secrets for her and himself to feast upon. He imagines her face in the heat of passion, but as she glides into the water, he needs imagine no more: her eyes fall shut in delight and she groans as she lets the water take her, lets herself float in the warm rays of the afternoon sun.

Oh, but this woman could drive men mad with her beauty; she could topple empires! Now, Jaffar knows why her father has guarded her so jealously from every man's gaze. The way the water glitters as she raises her arms lazily, letting it run in rivulets down the softness of her skin, the way her pink nipples peek out of the water as she moves--Jaffar has no choice but to cup himself through his shalwars.

And it is most strange that she seems to be still performing for him, for some invisible lover: she climbs out of her pond and lies down upon the rug the maids have spread beside it. There, she stretches in delight, her limbs quivering sweetly, the water and the sun caressing her into but further displays of passion. She gathers up her legs and spreads them, then glides her hand to her cunny.

Jaffar gasps and clutches at his prick, now most definitely hard. He wonders if this is some trick the pairi is playing upon him, or a fellow magician teasing him with a vision that could not possibly be real. He snarls and lifts out his cock, but no, his wanton princess does not stop: she continues to rub the plump white mound of her cunny, masturbating there in the sunlight without shame.

Greedily, Jaffar draws closer, so that the crystal's vision moves in between her legs: now he is so close he can almost smell her. His mouth fills with saliva as she rubs herself, spreads herself, dragging the lips of her cunny up a little so that her folds spread out like petals, flushing, swelling as she continues her caresses.

And there she and Jaffar remain, both masturbating without realising the other is watching, and he wishes he could send a tendril of his thought to her, a little lick, a suck upon her cunny: to see if it tastes as wonderful as it looks as it starts to glisten, just as his own prick now does. He wants to give her a little nudge, to push her over the edge, to be the agent of her pleasure: but no, no, she obeys her own hand's movements, tensing upon the rug, her knees trembling so that she must be close, must. Jaffar's cock drips into his fist--dear Lord, he has not been this aroused in months!--and he realises he is drooling, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. His balls are high against the root of his cock and oh, but he wants to be inside of her, inside of her, inside that sweet, slick flesh--

But it is then that she sucks upon two of her fingers and slips them between her legs. And to Jaffar's astonishment, it's not her cunny she pushes them into but lower, lower. She hooks her fingers inside of her arse with violent force, tossing, screaming, orgasming so violently she is shaking. She writhes and grinds upon her hands, throws herself onto her stomach to continue, wringing another climax out of herself: now Jaffar can see her fingers sinking inside of her arse as she rides her other hand and he cannot help but howl. That rarest of things, a woman who loves sodomy by nature, oh, oh--

And then he can see no more as his own sperm sprays the crystal, thick rivulets of it bathing the still-writhing virgin princess, soiling her with his seed. With shaking hands, he wipes the crystal to catch a last glimpse of her, sperm still pulsing out of his cock as he trembles and trembles, hunched over his vision.

But now, the pairi laughs and makes a smacking noise with her fleshless lips: the crystal grows dim and his sperm is soaked into it, sucked into it until the surface is once again smooth, clean, shining.

"I thank you, I thank you indeed, bittersweet pard," the pairi giggles and then grows silent, satisfied with the offering.

Jaffar falls back upon his cushions and groans, staring into the darkness. Despite having been wrung dry, he is still restless, unsatisfied, unhappy; oh, he is as unhappy as a man can be. And it is because he recognises this perverse feeling, this grief at one's release for what it is: it can be nothing but love. A mad love, a distant love, a love doomed to remain unrequited; exactly the sort to drive a man to madness. He has been there once before, and he can still hear Abbasa's screams, the screams of their children and he digs his fingers into the cushions, groaning loudly to drown out the memory. He groans until his groans turn into howls, then sobs: tears run down his temples into his ears, yet he sobs. What has possessed him? Has the pairi laid a spell on him? How can he be in love from just a glimpse of a girl he has never met?

He buries his face into the cushions and moans. He has to go and see her, has to end this before it can begin, to break the spell before this madness consumes him.

It is but a girl, he tells himself. A girl in a crystal, nothing more.

Chapter Text

***

The Sultan's palace, Basra

***

Yassamin's fingers twitch nervously as the women braid her hair and weave flowers into it.

"Why are you decking me out in all this finery when he will not even be able to see me properly?"

"Because it's the idea that matters the most," her aunt says, ignoring Yassamin's wince as she pins another bunch of jasmine onto her temple. "He might not see you, but he is talking to the most beautiful princess in the land, and you must live and breathe like one." She tugs a little on the jasmine for good measure. "And not like a brat."

Yassamin swats her hands off. "I could do it perfectly well without the costume," she grumbles.

Her mother places a large mirror in her lap. "There. Isn't that the most beautiful maiden you ever saw?"

Yassamin gazes upon the princess in the reflection, taking in her carefully applied kohl and lip-paint, the cascades of gold chains and flowers framing her face. She barely recognises herself, starts a little as she lifts her hand to her cheek--the patterns of henna have turned her hand into the talons of a bird of prey, and she does not know it for her own. She looks beautiful; this, she knows: she smells wonderful, her hair and skin anointed with perfumed oils, and she even tinkles melodiously from the pounds of jewellery she is now wearing. But it all seems like so much artifice: this is some doll they are presenting to the Caliph's Grand Vizier, not Yassamin herself.

Her aunt squeezes her shoulders. "Only a fool would not see a future Calipha when gazing upon such beauty," she sighs happily.

Yassamin stares at herself, detached, observing the movement of her lips from afar. "I wonder how soon he will glean the truth and be disappointed," she murmurs.

Her mother smacks her on the back. "No such nonsense. You are the daughter of a sultana, the granddaughter of a sultana and will yet become the greatest of us all: an empress."

Her aunt quirks her eyebrow. "By which your mother means you will have to keep sending her all the latest perfumes from Baghdad in order to remain in her good graces. I, however, will be satisfied with a new husband, if you can snatch a handsome Barmakid for me."

It is then little Fatima arrives with her bangles. "Cousin Yassamin, when you are Cali-Chal--oh, Cousin Yassamin, when you are empress, will you buy me a blue house in Baghdad?" She takes her hand. "And a pet tiger?"

She squeezes Fatima's hand and tries not to cry. "We'll see."

***

The reception hall has been decked out in flowers and multicoloured lanterns, censers billowing out thick clouds of rose and ambergris. The air is so full of smoke Yassamin coughs into her veil as she ascends the stairs to the platform she is to receive her guest upon. The platform itself is canopied, filled with cushions, with a sheer red curtain dividing it in two. Sheer it may be, but as the room is lit low, she and the vizier would have no chance of seeing each other's faces through it even if she removed her veil, now. Large gold trays of sweetmeats and giant crystal ewers of wine await them, but she's not hungry at all, rather sick.

Two armed eunuchs take their places at the corners of the platform, but apart from them, there are no other people in the room. Thankfully, one of those eunuchs is Karim--she prefers him to her real father and feels a little more at ease now that she knows he will be watching over her.

Karim flashes her a warm smile as he passes her by. "You will do fine, little flower."

"I hope so," she whispers, trying to smile.

But it is then that the trumpets sound and the chamberlain announces her guest. "Jaffar, son of Yahya, son of Khalid of the house of Barmak, Grand Vizier of our most righteous Caliph Ahmad, son of Amin, son of Harun al-Rashid, Commander of the Faithful."

As if the name Barmak wasn't enough to make her heart race, she finds her chest constricting as she watches the tall, thin man now approaching the platform. He is wearing flowing robes of dark silk and his gait is so soft it makes it appear as if he is not walking but gliding across the floor. He does not walk like a man, more like a woman or a cat; it frightens her so that for a brief moment she wonders if he is not part djinni. She would not put it past a son of the house of Barmak, after having experienced one of their demons first hand. Was it this man she had witnessed as a child, or one of his brothers? As he ascends the steps to the platform and takes his seat behind the curtain, she feels as if her heart is about to burst out of her chest. Perhaps it is him, perhaps--

"God's blessings and peace upon thee, my most noble lady," he says, his voice like that of a cat, too, and he can't be her demon, for she remembers the other man's voice had been lower, deeper. And despite Jaffar's careful enunciation, she can still hear a Persian accent in his voice: so the Barmakids aren't as perfect at speaking Arabic as the legends would have it! This gives her a little more confidence, so she can now speak her standard response in a voice that she hopes sounds calm and sweet and refined.

"God's blessings and peace upon thee, Grand Vizier. How may I serve you?"

He laughs, a pard's purr and Merciful Lord, that laughter curls warm in her belly, sending the strangest of tingling, shimmering waves through her body.

"It is I who should be serving my lady. I have come here as but the instrument of my master the Caliph, to ask for your hand in marriage."

She makes to answer, but then sees him taking something out of his satchel; it seems like a notebook by the looks of it, and a penbox. This blasted family of civil servants! Wouldn't a man in his position be able to afford a secretary of his own if he is to take notes?

She clears her throat. "I would--I must confess I would like to meet the Caliph in person, to find out if we were suited to one another."

He clicks his tongue and shakes his head. "But, my lady, the Caliph is like a brother unto me, and he reassures me that if I was pleased with you, he would be pleased with you, too. And I am here to find out exactly that. Whether you please me, my lady."

Even through the curtain, she can see his teeth flashing white, and that strange tingle in her spine now swirls through her hips, making her flush from her belly to her cheeks.

"That is a little too bold," she says, with a warning tone to her voice, and now she has to pull her veil back from her face because she is struggling to breathe. Her head spins, and she wonders if it's the incense. Yes, it must be, must: perhaps her father had ordered them to mix in narcotics to try and calm her nerves like they sometimes do with prospective brides. That would explain why she has been feeling strange ever since entering this room. Yet she will not be so easily drugged, she swears this to herself; besides, he has insulted her honour by speaking to her in such a suggestive manner. "Do not think you can be bold with me, Barmakid. If you are looking for a woman of pleasure, I suggest you head for the slave market instead."

"Ah, a girl of spirit!" he chuckles, waving an elegant hand. "This does not displease me; I prefer it in a woman, rather. And a queen should have spirit."

She is about to respond, but at that moment, one of the cats that had been lazing upon the pillows comes to butt at her arm, her hand as if to check if she is fine. And Karim senses her unease as well; even if he stands well away from her, she can hear his feet shifting upon the rug. She takes a deep breath and straightens her back.

"And what is it that my lord the Caliph enjoys most in life?" she asks. "I would know if my future husband and I shared any interests."

"Oh, philosophy, engineering, poetry, medicine, all the arts and sciences. But I forget, my lady; those are the things I have a keen interest in. Our lord and master enjoys polo, archery and fine pageants. But as I have said, we are as close as brothers, and brothers share everything, do they not? Thus, you would be able to share all our pleasures with us, I am sure."

He is teasing her. He is here on the Caliph's business and yet he is offering himself, making lewd jests--oh, the outrageousness of it makes her reel in disgust. She glances at Karim, who has moved his hand to the hilt of his sword, then looks sternly in the direction of the vizier.

"Does he show as little respect for ladies as you do, my lord?"

Jaffar lets out a snorting laugh and for a brief moment, she wonders if he is drunk--again, something she would not put past a Barmakid. He does not respond, but scribbles something in his notebook and only then, looks up.

"I and the Caliph have the utmost respect for the fairer sex, both at court and in our... private quarters."

"That is quite enough," she snaps.

"Please, my lady. I apologise."

"Are you possessed?" she blurts. "It's as if you want me to turn the proposal down. If so, why did you come? To make a fool out of me?" she chokes, now, tears filling her eyes. She is letting her entire family down, because they would imagine this was her fault. She could not care less for her fool of a father--but to betray her mother, her aunt, little Fatima's dream of a pet tiger--

"I am sorry," he says, his voice now soft with genuine regret. "I am not used to talking to princesses; I have been spending too much time with singing-girls. Their manners are not as refined as yours." He leans closer to the curtain and reaches for her, as if to take her hand. Yet at the last moment, he but brushes the curtain with his fingertips, then lets his hand fall onto the cushions. "Please accept my most humble apologies. We might converse politely, still, if you can but forgive me for having been a fool and a brute."

"Finally, some manners," she sniffs. "Will you promise to behave?"

"I am your slave," he says, and she can hear the smile in his voice.

But it is then that the cat jumps from her lap and makes for the curtain: it walks straight through the folds and for a moment, the curtain parts. Yassamin is too shocked to even gasp as she gazes upon the man for but a brief second--his pale, pale blue eyes look straight into hers, his face soft with the kind of concern she has only ever seen upon Karim's face.

As the curtain falls once more, she gathers this sight into her heart and holds it there, the sight of his high cheekbones, his thin moustache, the red curve of his mouth, a face far more beautiful and more feminine than his brother's. But later, if you were to ask her, all she would remember from this day were his eyes. Those eyes, both gentle and wicked, playful and curious, both soothing her and stirring her--and through the gap in the curtain, she had indeed smelled wine upon him. To think that he had been the one nervous, to think that he had needed to fortify himself with drink in order to talk to her--oh, she does not know what to think, but she knows she does not hate him.

She wipes her nose on her sleeve, and to hell with the silk brocade. "Speak, Barmakid."

"I have been rendered speechless," he whispers.

"I much prefer flatteries to indecencies, I must say," she laughs. She glances back at the eunuchs, but they are only smiling conspiratorially--she will not have to fear they would tell her father about the cat's indiscretion.

"Like the sun and the moon, they said you were," Jaffar murmurs. "I now see that those were but foul, wicked lies. The sun and the moon envy your radiance, my lady."

"And does the Caliph recite poetry more beautifully than you do?" she asks coquettishly.

"With less of an accent," he laughs. "Do you have sisters that share your spirit? Because now I am beginning to envy the Caliph."

"I have but one, and she is married to the Sultan of Samarkand."

Jaffar stops, hesitates. "Her name would not be Latifa by any chance?"

"Yes! But how do you know?"

Jaffar bursts into laughter. "Because, my lady, we are related already. My brother Mohammad--God bless his soul--is this very Sultan you speak of. How did you not know that?"

"I--" she stutters. "I was but a babe when she left us. And Samarkand is far away; we have not been corresponding much."

"I know how you must feel. I haven't had a letter from my brother in years. But the last I heard of him, he told me he loved his wife and children very much and that they made him very happy. This bodes well for your future marriage, if you do not think it too bold of me to say that."

"I refuse to believe the Caliph is that much like the Barmakids," she laughs nervously.

Jaffar shrugs. "He has better manners than I, I admit. But if he were to ask me, now, I would tell him that I have never met a candidate as worthy to share his throne as you, my lady."

"I have not given him my acquiescence yet," she says. She shifts on her cushions and leans closer--oh, she has to, drawn to Jaffar by his perfume, that musk she remembers his brother had worn so long ago. The memories it evokes in her, the warmth it stirs in her womb--it is madness, she knows, but if she is to submit to the inevitable, she might as well enjoy herself first. For if she is to be locked up in but another harem, perhaps this is her only chance to be this close to another grown man. "Does he wear the same perfumes as you do, my lord?" she says, using this as an excuse to inhale him a little.

"He is a pious man, and just like the Prophet himself, he enjoys nothing more than perfume and the company of women."

And that stings her heart. "How many women?"

"I am sure you and I both know the answer to that. He is Caliph, after all. But you would be the head of all those women. There is not even a Queen Mother to breathe down your back, think of it! His mother and grandmother died a long time ago, and the harem has been ruled by my own mother thus far. Ettabeh is an agreeable and kind-hearted woman, pious and cultured but not averse to a good cup of wine, either. I am sure the two of you could become the best of friends."

"You seem very sure of that. But you know very little about me, Barmakid."

"Then, come, my lady; tell me what delights you the most in life." He picks up his pen and his notebook once more, his voice now much gentler than it was before. "I am listening."

And it is here that she hesitates a little. Should she mention the truly queenly pursuits first, to appear her best? "Falconry," she mumbles, even if she only goes on hunting trips a few times a year. "But it is knowledge that is my greatest love," she says, a little defensively. Perhaps it will make her sound dull and boring, but she would Jaffar and the Caliph knew the truth. "I have read every book my father has ever owned, memorised more than a dozen, and I must admit I have always wanted to travel to Baghdad if only to spend time in its libraries."

"The House of Wisdom?"

She casts down her eyes. "Yes." And he does not have to tell her: it had been Jaffar himself who had established it, the greatest library the world has ever known, surpassing even that of Alexandria. She is talking to one of the most learned men in all of Persia, and the very idea makes her feel small. He must think her such a fool. She plays with the tassel of her cushion, her voice low from embarrassment. "I would like to visit it very much."

"I shall see to it personally," he says, his voice soft with warmth, awe. "I will set a chamber aside just for you, my lady, so that you may study there uninterrupted."

"That is very kind."

"You will become, in effect, my sister-in-law, and therefore as close as a sister. It's the least I could do," he says. "And it is not often that one comes across a lady scholar."

And here I sit and wonder if you weren't the better husband for me, Barmakid, she hears herself thinking, startling herself. They sent her a lover of books, a man intelligent despite his poor manners, yet would marry her to another--what is she to think? What is this madness? It must be these damned, cursed incense fumes. If she does not get out into the garden soon to breathe in some fresh air, she knows she will faint. "A thousand apologies, my lord, but I feel ill," she says, clutching her chest. "I must take my leave."

"Very well. But you have not yet given me your answer. Know that you can give it to me in confidence, as if you were speaking to the Caliph himself."

She stares at him, stares at the dark shape of the man before her. And in that moment, Jaffar the Barmakid seems to represent to her all men, this new world she is to step into to fulfill her duty as a woman, as a princess. Caliph or vizier, how would she ever know a man, know love if she did not marry? And his musk, his voice, the warmth he has awakened in her body with his teasing--oh, now her yearning all but spills over, and she cannot help but give him her answer, her only answer.

"If I were speaking to the Caliph himself..." she stutters, yet it is Jaffar's long, lithe shape she measures with her eyes. "I would say I would marry you, my lord."

He is quiet for a while, and even through the curtain, she can see he is smiling a little wistfully. "I shall bear these news to the Caliph forthwith," he murmurs, then prostrates himself. "God's blessings upon thee, my lady Yassamin, daughter of Mahmoud. May God keep you and shelter you."

She gets up, swaying a little upon her feet. "My lord Jaffar, son of Yahya. May God keep you and shelter you," she says, and she has never meant the blessing with such fervour as she does now. "Until we meet again."

And as he gets up and turns to leave, the curtain parts enough to give her another glimpse of his white, jagged smile. "Until we meet again, my lady."

***

After a long walk in the garden, she returns to the harem and makes her way to her bedchamber. Predictably, all the women are waiting for her there, queen and slave girl alike.

"Well?"

"How did it go?"

The women buzz around her restlessly, bombarding her with questions, but she has no answers. Quietly, she pulls off her jewellery, her silks and sits upon her bed in silence.

"You look like you're in love!" Fatima titters.

I am in love, she thinks, but how could she tell them? She has been smiling for long moments, but now a cold, dark fear clutches at her chest: what were they thinking in Baghdad? What was her father thinking? Surely they should have considered the possibility of her--no. She has not fallen in love with that uncouth Barmakid. For an hour, she has tried to convince herself of this, of how she has been but stunned by the presence of a strange male next to her. Quiet, now, you stupid girl, she tells her mind, quit talking nonsense.

"It's been an exhausting day," she says, gesturing for the women to leave. "I would retire early tonight."

Her mother is the last to leave. She turns out all but the lantern closest to Yassamin's bed, then sits beside her. "Now, remember to say your prayers," she says, then kisses her hair. "And dream of your husband-to-be."

And as sweet as her mother's intent is, the moment she leaves the room, Yassamin covers her face with her hands and lets out a moan of despair.

Chapter Text

***

The Caliph's palace, Baghdad, two weeks later

***

Jaffar's cry echoes off the tiles as he shouts his release, spurting thick ribbons of sperm all over the bathroom floor. He shudders against the wall but keeps stroking himself as Masrur takes him, watching as the running water sluices his seed down the drain. His knees hurt against the hard, coarse stone floor and his arm is aching, but he needs this, needs to be taken so hard that he forgets.

So that he forgets what an idiot he has been, a drunken idiot towards the woman he loves, an idiot for having fallen in love in the first place.

"More," he mewls, grinding his face against the tiles, spitting wet hair from his mouth.

Masrur but takes him by the hair the way he knows Jaffar likes, pounding into him with a steady rhythm. "Quiet," Masrur growls, pushing so deep into Jaffar his balls rest against his perineum. And at that, he remains still, knowing how sore Jaffar must be now, knowing the nauseating pleasure-pain such deep penetration gives him.

And Jaffar is grateful for this, loves Masrur for this as he clutches at his thigh with a shaking hand. He would utter "Please," but Masrur has told him to be quiet, giving him the pretend-ravishment he needs on a day like this, when nothing else will suffice. When he has been overloaded with work, with grief, with memories--at least some of them are now washed away by the force of Masrur's sex, flowing down the drain with the sperm and the soap and the oil.

And thus, Jaffar remains there, taking his punishment on shaking knees, taking Masrur deep into his guts, existing not as a man filled with melancholy but only as arse and balls and cock, as only flesh for Masrur to take.

He has loved this play ever since they had first had sex together, a few years ago: they had gone to the baths together and Jaffar had been insulting Masrur--he can't even remember what for. But Masrur had been much angrier a man then, having still been but a slave. And he had had enough, had taken Jaffar by the throat and slammed him against the wall, thinking to rape him. Vizier or not, he had said, he was going to teach Jaffar manners even if it meant losing his head. But oh, the look on his face when Jaffar, aroused by this, had dropped to his knees and sucked him into his mouth!

From that day on, Masrur had been a free man and Jaffar his friend, yet they still play this game now and then: more often ever since Jaffar's return from Basra. It might be selfish of Jaffar to demand all of this from him, but he also hopes it helps Masrur release his frustrations, compensates for all the little ways in which Jaffar tries his patience.

But Masrur is no brute at heart: now it is he who shouts, bellows loudly as he finds his release inside of Jaffar. He draws himself onto his knees and pulls Jaffar up, clutching him tight against his body as he trembles and trembles in orgasm.

And Jaffar allows him this tenderness, for he loves the strength of Masrur's arms, letting the last of his anguish be pressed out of his body by the force of his embrace.

Masrur rests with his back against the wall, still holding Jaffar in his arms, still buried deep inside of him. "Did I hurt you?" he mumbles against Jaffar's ear.

"Just enough," Jaffar groans, leaning back in Masrur's arms.

"I should fuck you until you forget her completely," Masrur grumbles against his shoulder.

Jaffar lets out a barking laugh. "You succeeding at it rather marvellously, if I may say so."

"Promise to me there will be no pining tonight. No overindulging in wine, no composing maudlin poetry and then passing out in the garden with your prick out."

"Indeed, yes! Why should I pine for another wife when I have you?"

"You know what I mean." Masrur sinks his hand into Jaffar's hair and shakes him by it, punishing him a little more for good measure. "It's for your own good. I much prefer it when you are not a miserable wretch."

Jaffar but lets out an exaggerated, lascivious moan and squeezes his buttocks. "You know, I think I need a little more disciplining still. You haven't executed a man in days; surely there is some brutality still left in you?"

"Fine," Masrur growls and takes his mouth in a savage kiss. "But know that I don't do this as your servant. I do it for the good of the Caliphate."

Jaffar moans in true arousal, now; he rolls his hips on Masrur's cock, his own bobbing a little. "I should establish a new title. The royal fucker-of-viziers-into-their-senses."

Masrur slaps his chest. "Now, that is the stupidest title I have ever heard."

"Then help me come up with a better one," Jaffar says as he turns around in Masrur's arms and begins to ride him.

***

It takes all of two weeks until Ahmad even remembers to ask Jaffar about Yassamin. Fadl has been running the affairs of the country so smoothly that Jaffar wonders if his own services are even needed any longer. A little demon on his shoulder tells him he should have just remained in Basra, become an advisor to the Sultan and married his daughter. Hell, Ahmad is so dim-witted it probably would have taken him years to even realise he was one vizier short.

But now, evidently, Ahmad remembers Jaffar's existence, and that of a distant princess. He receives Jaffar casually, privately in his entertaining-quarters, over dried fruit and wine.

"Well?" Ahmad says impatiently over the brim of his cup.

"As promised, my lord and master, I have captured her visage for you."

Jaffar takes his notebook out of his satchel and opens it to the page he had been scribbling on. Beside the list of Yassamin's interests and Jaffar's observations on her qualities, he has sketched her face in profile. Of course, he does not tell Ahmad that this sketch is the result of him having observed her in his crystal--how else could he have rendered her features so accurately?

Yet now, Jaffar burns with jealousy as he watches Ahmad looking at the drawing, taking in the almond eyes and the full mouth that have tormented Jaffar in his dreams. And the worst thing about it is that now, Ahmad looks upon those features as if he were inspecting a vase at the bazaar: lazily, technically, with little passion. Does the stupid little child even know what love is?

Jaffar digs his nails into his palms in order not to scream; he affects a pleasant voice. "Do you find her pleasing, my lord?"

Ahmad shrugs. "I suppose."

Jaffar nearly growls at him, but disguises this as a cough into his sleeve. "Pardon me, my lord. I was about to say that she is no ordinary princess. You know how people lie when arranging marriages, exaggerating the fine qualities of the bride and the groom. But trust me that I do not lie when I say I found her astonishingly beautiful, gifted with wit and charm, and intelligence besides: she loves nothing more than knowledge and books. One would have to pay five thousand gold dinars for a courtesan with such qualities."

"Oh, but a wife costs much more, especially if she is a royal princess. And I do not mean the bride-price; I have plenty of gold to spare."

Jaffar pretends not to understand. "What do you mean, my lord?"

"An intelligent woman taxes my strength, bores me to death," Ahmad says and drinks from his cup. "I am not one for books."

Oh, as if Ahmad needed to tell him that. The years Jaffar has spent twisting his arm to get enough funds to support the House of Wisdom, to feed its hundreds of copyists and translators--good Lord. If it hadn't been for the Barmakids, all of Persia would have been plunged into barbarism and illiteracy long ago.

"Then, my lord, as she is a scholar, perhaps it would be better if we forgot about the matter entirely. I--"

Ahmad raises his hand. "No. It is a fine match. She is a woman of quality, is she not? A woman of breeding?"

A cold, slithering snake of disgust coils in Jaffar's belly. "She is."

"Besides, if I find out she does, indeed, bore me, I have plenty of other women to choose from. And an heir does not have to be born of a woman of noble blood--why, Harun's grandmother was a slave girl," Ahmad muses and rubs his beardless chin.

"Pardon me, my lord, but should it not follow on from that that you needn't marry her at all?"

"Jaffar, Jaffar. You yourself have told me that the people expect a great wedding and a beautiful bride of class, and she is all that, is she not?"

Jaffar is trembling with the effort not to strangle him. "Yes."

"And we need a queen who fulfills those needs."

"Well--"

Ahmad empties his cup. "See to it."

"I shall have a judge draw out the marriage contract," Jaffar says, staring into the wine in his cup, wishing it was filled with poison instead.

***

"Khurshid!" Jaffar barks, raising his lantern to peer over his shoulder. Where's the little gnome tarrying now?

"Coming, master." Khurshid struggles up the staircase with a book under one arm, having drawn his robes up to his knees so he won't stumble. He huffs and puffs as he finally reaches Jaffar. "I apologise, master. I'm not as young as I once was. Tell me, why do we need to come up here? I have calculated all the movements of the stars for the next seventy years, and could have given you the charts in my study."

Jaffar grins at him. "Because this is the one place where we will not be disturbed, and because I want to see the stars myself. Only one more flight. Come."

They reach the top of the observation tower in the small hours of the night, after most of the lights in the city have gone out. It is a clear, moonless night, the Milky Way glimmering bright above them as they sit down and take out their instruments.

"Have you studied her chart?" Jaffar asks.

"Many times."

"And compared it with Ahmad's?"

Khurshid groans. "I wish I never had done; theirs is the worst possible combination I have ever seen. What am I to tell our master? If he had any knowledge of the stars and consulted the horoscope himself--"

"He would still not believe it, and would go ahead with the marriage even if it meant his doom," Jaffar sighs. "He is a fool not to take heed of what God has written in the stars."

"I took the liberty of comparing her chart with yours, master; seeing as you are involved."

Jaffar had, in fact, counted on that; it's why he had asked Khurshid to re-draw his own in case the one his father's astrologer had drawn at his birth had been inaccurate. "And what did you find, my friend?"

"Well--it is quite extraordinary. See for yourself." Khurshid rolls out two sheets of parchment and places them side by side. "See that, the Lion?"

"Yes, that's me. And she is the Archer?"

"Yes, see where they overlap? How she sits neatly in the house of your heart and you in the house of her soul? And elsewhere? Opposed where dynamism is preferred, nestled side by side where harmony is desired." Khurshid shakes his head. "In all of my fifty-three years as an astrologer, never have I seen the like. It is a perfect match."

Jaffar sneers. "You would say that to anyone for enough gold coins, you old charlatan."

Even in the lamplight, however, Jaffar can see Khurshid's face is now grave. "I ask for nothing, master. In fact, I was afraid to show these to you. A match like this only comes along once in a century. And more often than not, since the two people are rarely married to one another, it brings nothing but calamity and woe."

Jaffar refuses to look at the charts, staring up at the real stars instead. "What do the stars say about two such people, then?" he asks, quietly.

"But one thing, master, and it is written in words of flame."

"Well?"

"You and the princess must love each other--or one of you will die."

Jaffar looks at Khurshid, now, dumbfounded. He is furious, knows he is staring, his robes bunched in his fists. The superstitious old fool, painting these dread visions in flowery words--oh, he should throw him off the tower now. Or, hell, jump off it himself, to end this madness. He closes his eyes and thinks of it, thinks of being relieved of the burden of marrying the woman he loves to a fool, a fool who might destroy her, so break her heart that she could never love again. And now he thinks of Yassamin miserable, Yassamin wanting to end her life, too--no, no. He would not see her so humiliated.

But what can he do? He would rather love than die; this, he knows in his heart. But loving a woman he should not have loved--he had lost everything the last time he did that, and would not make the same mistake again.

"Master?"

Jaffar opens his eyes once more. "Khurshid, if you tell anyone of this, I will have your head. Do you understand?"

"I would not dream of telling anyone. It is too awful to contemplate. Would you have me burn both charts?"

"No. Give them to me."

"As you wish."

Khurshid rolls up the charts and hands them to Jaffar. As Jaffar accepts them, it's as if they burn his palm: quickly, he tucks them into his jacket, because it's not as if his chest isn't burning already. He stares at the horizon for long moments, drumming his knees with his fingers; his mind is filled only with noise, cacophony.

"What am I to do, Khurshid? What am I to do?" He hates the way his voice comes out, but a croaking whisper.

"If you permit me to say one more thing, master, even if it might seem inappropriate, but I swear it's relevant..."

"Yes?"

There is a twinkle in Khurshid's eye, now. "Women born under the sign of the Archer are inclined towards adultery. Notoriously so."

Jaffar bursts into laughter, a laughter dry, near-hysterical, laughing until he can laugh no more.

Chapter Text

The trumpets, cymbals and bells deafen Yassamin's ears as she is led into Baghdad upon an elephant. This is a display ten times more magnificent than anything she has been used to: now, she is told, she shall have four hundred handmaidens and as many eunuchs to serve her day and night, a stable of two hundred horses to choose from, and a dozen villas at her disposal.

But what does she need all these things for, she thinks, if she does not have happiness? For it is happiness she yearns to find, and now she forces herself to think about all the good things that await her here, everything that is to her new. But it is all so very bewildering, this sea of new faces, all these people she is now being introduced to, all these names she will now have to remember--her head is spinning.

"But when shall I meet the Caliph himself?" she asks as a young slave girl--Durra, wasn't it?--gives her a tour of the main queenly palace she is to now occupy. She would have imagined she and her husband-to-be would have been introduced to each other on her first day here.

"There's plenty of time before the wedding, madame," Durra smiles and offers to her her hand. "We must get you settled first. If you would come this way?"

Thus, all throughout the afternoon, Durra leads her through vaulted pink and blue corridors, shows her numberless baths and bedrooms, guides her way through a dozen garden pavilions.

Finally, as the day nears its end, they arrive at the menagerie. Durra pauses with her hand on the door marked as the cheetah's. "Do they have hunting-pards in Basra, madam?" she asks Yassamin.

Yassamin hasn't had time to think of Basra all day, but now she feels a stab of longing in her heart. "Yes. I had a pard of my own there, and I miss him very much."

Durra nods. "Intelligent animals, are they not?" she says as she turns the key in the lock. "All the obedience and loyalty of the dog without its filth. Although to tell you the truth, madam, I am a little frightened of anything bigger than a housecat myself," she says.

"I appreciate your courage in bringing me here, then," Yassamin says, warmly. "What is it that we are here for?"

"This is what the Barmakids have given you as a wedding present," Durra says, opening the door carefully, quietly.

Upon the floor of the dimly-lit room, attached to two opposite walls by chains, lies a cheetah with a hood over its head. Durra lowers her voice to a whisper. "I am told he is very tame." She glances over her shoulder into the corridor, beckoning impatiently to the cheetah-keeper. "Come on, then, Aziz, hurry up," she hisses. "Show him to the mistress."

The old eunuch enters the room and squats beside the cheetah, petting his back and chirping at him as he undoes the hood. The cheetah looks around himself, sniffing curiously as Yassamin approaches him, his eyes glinting in the half-light. Yassamin calculates the length of the chains attached to the beast's collar and stops five feet away from him, just in case.

Aziz flashes her a grin, stroking the animal's head with a firm hand. Yassamin is surprised to see he's not wearing gloves the way her father's cheetah-keeper had done: the cheetah, too, seems far more placid than her own had been in the company of strangers.

"Come closer, madam," Aziz says and beckons to Yassamin.

Carefully, Yassamin takes a few steps forward, then squats before the beast. She glances at Durra, who has remained at the door; Durra but nods at her and smiles. "Go on, my lady."

"What am I to say to him?" Yassamin asks Aziz.

"Perhaps I should introduce you." He turns to the cheetah and talks to him as if the cat were a young boy. "Bahadur, before you stands none other than Her Royal Highness Yassamin, daughter of Mahmoud of Basra. Now, greet her as befits a queen."

And to her astonishment, Bahadur looks straight into her eyes and lets out a chirp, resting his paw over her hand. She cannot help but laugh, her heart filled with gladness. The cat's eyes are intelligent, kind, and she dares pet him, scritching him behind the ears. "I am very pleased to meet you, Bahadur."

And just as if he were a housecat, Bahadur bursts into deep, heartfelt purrs and butts her hand, even licks at it a little.

"I don't believe it!" Yassamin laughs--oh, this is the first time she has laughed in days.

Aziz laughs and hands her a pot of meat. "Feed him this, madame, and he will be your slave forever."

And as Bahadur licks the pieces of meat from her hand, lapping at the traces of blood, she thinks of the man who had offered to be her slave, the man who had gifted her this beast. For she is certain it must have been Jaffar who had picked this animal out for her, and it should not amuse her so much--but to think of it, one thin cat buying her another!

As Bahadur finishes licking her hand clean, he rumbles in satisfaction and rests his head in her lap, again looking straight into her eyes.

"I have never met an animal like this," she murmurs as she strokes him, turning to look at Durra.

Durra nods. "In confidence, madam, I doubt even the Caliph would have been able to afford such a beast."

Aziz pets Bahadur's belly. "A cheetah this tame appears only once every twenty years, and every prince would own one. You could buy an entire palace with the sort of price an animal like this fetches."

"I don't understand," Yassamin says. "Do you mean the Barmakids have more money than the Caliph himself?"

"And power, besides," Durra says. "You have done well, madam, having earned their friendship this early on."

Yassamin shakes her head. "I barely know them."

Durra beckons to her. "You are about to meet the mother of them all, my lady. Come."

"Oh, but madam, you should bid good night to him, first," Aziz says with a smile.

Yassamin smiles and kisses Bahadur on his delicate, spotted brow. "Good night, Bahadur."

Bahadur chirps sadly in response and she is loath to leave him, but Durra beckons to her at the door. "Come, madam. We mustn't keep Ettabeh waiting."

***

Her first meeting with the true Queen Mother of the land is not at all like Yassamin had expected. For the moment she is led into the grand bedchamber, it is not a formal reception that awaits her, but a chaos. Ettabeh's ladies-in-waiting are busy packing her things, instructing slave girls to fold these clothes here, roll up that rug there, kicking another girl in the ankles when she seems to be slacking in her washing of the window lattices. Ettabeh herself is carefully arranging all her houseplants into a low crate upon a litter, as if a person to be carried out with great care. She only seems to remember she was to have an audience with Yassamin when the guards announce her arrival.

Ettabeh looks up from her plants and tucks a long, gray lock behind her ear, adjusting her veil. She squints a little, then breaks into a radiant smile. "Daughter!" she says, strides up to Yassamin and embraces her warmly, covering her in heartfelt kisses. Her thickly kohled eyes are sharp, keen, their colour a breathtaking pale blue: so that's where her sons had inherited theirs from. She must be older than most women Yassamin has ever seen, having nursed Harun al-Rashid himself half a century ago; nevertheless, she is still full of strength, her limbs lithe, her gait full of grace as she leads Yassamin to the bed. It's the only place they can sit, now that the servants have moved most of her things away.

Ettabeh tells the servants to bring tea, then dismisses them all and takes her seat beside Yassamin. "I will have moved out before the sunset prayers," she says, patting Yassamin's hand. "Then you can have all this to yourself."

"Oh, but you mustn't, my lady!" Yassamin says, embarrassed for Ettabeh having had to go to such trouble for her sake. "I would hate to deprive you of your home! I could live elsewhere, I am sure."

Ettabeh waves an elegant, dismissive hand. "Nonsense. I have a better house, just on the other side of the river--come, my child, have a look."

She all but yanks Yassamin to her feet as if she were a little girl and draws her to the window. Ettabeh points out the magnificent row of half a dozen palaces on the opposite bank of the Tigris, ones Yassamin had thought the Caliph's upon her arrival.

"That's where my family lives," Ettabeh says. "Not bad, is it?"

"They are beautiful," Yassamin murmurs. So they were not exaggerating about the Barmakids' wealth. The brightly-coloured stones must have been carted here from hundreds of miles away, and the gold and turquoise domes shine so brightly they make her eyes water. The palaces seem newer, brighter in comparison to the one they are now standing in, too.

Ettabeh opens the window lattice further and points out across the river. "That yellow one belongs to my oldest son, Fadl, the blue one to my second son, Jaffar, and the pink one between them is mine. The plumbing is a little better and there's less of a draught during the winter nights, so when you get tired of this place, just send me a word and I will let you stay there anytime."

Yassamin pulls back a little. "Oh. Is it--is it that awful here, then?" She feels a chill in her bones, now.

"No, no," Ettabeh laughs and pats Yassamin on the back reassuringly as she leads them back to the bed and pours Yassamin some tea. "This is one of the newer parts of the palace complex, so it's nowhere near as bad as the harem proper. Or my sons' working quarters, for that matter. And my daughters-in-law live here as well, as do their children, so that's another reason that keeps the boys here. For the women, to be away from the harem for more than a few days means being dead in the eyes of the court, you see."

Yassamin nods as she sips the strong, sweet tea. "It was the same in Basra. We had women who were free to go as they pleased, but they preferred to stay in the harem because they would've missed out on all the gossip otherwise."

"You are lucky my old husband is no longer alive. He started to get a little paranoid in his old age and started to lock us all up so that we couldn't even go to the bazaar." Ettabeh says this with a little laugh, but from the corner of her eye, Yassamin can see shadows flitting across her face. "I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't listen. My sons are convinced the queen had him assassinated for it."

Despite the hot tea, a cold flash goes through Yassamin. "Who would be queen?" she laughs nervously.

"My poor child! I apologise," Ettabeh says and embraces her. "I did not mean to frighten you. All of this happened in Harun's day, and while that age has passed into legend--just as I will, soon--you needn't worry about the present." She pulls back and looks at Yassamin up and down. "You poor thing, you must be frightened out of your wits!" She takes Yassamin's tea glass and sets it back on the tray, then makes for a bottle of wine. "Here, my child. You need something stronger; get some real warmth in you."

Despite Yassamin's protests--she has hardly ever indulged in the forbidden drink--Ettabeh pours them a large bowlful and they pass it back and forth. After a while, Yassamin is more than glad of having been offered it: the wine relaxes her limbs and spreads warmth into them, and soon, she is laughing out loud at Ettabeh's stories about the palace.

"And that was when Harun made Abu Nuwas take all his clothes off, had the pack-saddle of an ass strapped to his back, and made him crawl through the harem, performing tricks for us--oh, we laughed until we thought our bellies would burst!"

Yassamin bends double with laughter, her eyes watering. "But whatever for?" she gasps when she can breathe again.

Ettabeh pours them another cupful and passes it to Yassamin. "Harun had caught him with boys again. Three of them this time, all kissing and fondling him at once!"

Yassamin nearly chokes on her drink. Even if Ettabeh is old enough to be her grandmother, she must have seen things Yassamin couldn't even dream of. "And--and does that sort of thing still go on at the palace?"

Ettabeh waves her hand as she takes the cup from Yassamin. "All the time. One shouldn't worry about it too much, as long as the men don't forget about their marital duties completely. Which reminds me--" Ettabeh looks into her eyes, her own now a little clouded from drink. "You needn't fear Jaffar. I know he is a little too fond of wine, and can be terribly rude at times. I fear he has said improper things to you, because of the way you behave whenever I mention his name."

Yassamin turns scarlet--damn and blast, Ettabeh is right. Look at her, flushing and stuttering. "He was a little crude, but he seems like a good man. I have forgiven him already."

"That's not what I mean, my child." Ettabeh hands her the cup. "It's only that I know he does not mean the things he says when he is being lewd at women. He may play the rake, but I know for a fact that he has sworn off women, so if he ever makes advances towards you, know that they are in jest."

Yassamin does not say anything, only empties the cup very slowly, hoping Ettabeh will continue so that she doesn't have to answer her.

"Again, this is before your time, but I still remember the days when I would send a fresh new slave girl to his bed every Friday evening. Now he only plays with boys," Ettabeh sighs, filling the cup yet again. "He lost his wife and children, you see, and it is a tale terrible to tell. But I see it's late and the sun is about to go down--we need to clear out this room so you can go to sleep." She gets up. "I shall call the maids."

Startled, Yassamin takes Ettabeh by the arm. "No. Tell me now."

"It is a tale that would disturb your sleep," Ettabeh says and caresses her veil, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "I will tell you some other time, I promise. But for now, you must think of only your husband--and to please him best, you must think of your health and your beauty. Therefore, you must make sure you get enough sleep, daughter."

Yassamin kisses her hand and sighs. "You're right. I am tired; it has been such a long day. Thank you."

"Call me 'Mother,'" Ettabeh says, squeezing Yassamin's hand.

"Thank you for everything, Mother," Yassamin says, squeezing back.

***

Despite her requests, Yassamin is not allowed to see Ahmad--it's bad luck for a bride to see the bridegroom's face before the wedding, they tell her. The festivities have gone on for three days already, but only tomorrow will she finally sit beside him and be crowned queen. And as curious as she is, she is also desperate for it all to be over--the noise of the crowds outside frightens her, and the idea of Ahmad lifting her veil in front of the thousands of people that comprise the court--oh, it makes her sick with terror. She does everything she can to exhaust herself so that she will not have to be so scared: when she's at the harem baths, she tries to swim from one end of the pool to the other so many times they finally have to fish her out of it, Durra remarking that for a moment, it looked as if she was trying to drown herself.

"No, no," Yassamin says, shaking her wet hair from her face, hugging her towel around herself.

"I understand, my lady. My mind would be in a chaos, too, if I were in your position," Durra says and takes her hands.

"Why wasn't I born an ordinary merchant's wife?" Yassamin groans. "I would have probably married a cousin, would have known him all my life, and would only have had my family and his to worry about. Instead of--"

"My lady, if I may be so bold as to... well, may I speak freely?"

"Yes?"

"Well, it's only that there is no use in thinking of such things. We cannot erase what God has written for us in His book."

"Can't I peek onto the next page at least?" Yassamin huffs. "Or just turn to it, already? I would see what kind of a man I am supposed to be marrying!"

"You would need a magic crystal for that, Your Highness," one of the other women shoots over her shoulder as she steps out of the pool. "Even the civil servants barely get to see him; he has a waiting list three months long." The woman wraps her towel around herself and sits next to Yassamin. "Unless, of course, you are a Barmakid or good friends with one."

Durra looks from this woman to Yassamin and back, seemingly ashamed for the woman's bold behaviour. "Mistress, this is--"

Yassamin finally looks at the other woman properly. It's not so much the way she looks but the way she sounds that is familiar to her, her accent betraying her for another Basran. Her voice, her voice--it's so husky and melodious it sounds sensual, like a trained entertaining-girl's. But this woman is here with servants of her own, so she cannot possibly be a slave. "Do I not know you, madam?"

"I doubt we have ever spoken, but I once served at your father's court. I left for Baghdad when you were still but a child. But you have grown into a most beautiful little woman, I must say," she laughs, her eyes sparkling with mirth.

Yassamin bursts into laughter. "Nasrin!"

She wonders if Nasrin knows it was her and not some other girl behind the lattice that day five years ago. Her smirk is so salacious it could very well mean that, and the way she now nods seems to indicate she does, indeed, remember it to have been her.

Durra looks at both of them, confused. "You two know each other?"

"In a way." Yassamin grins, now flushed at the memory, also enjoying Durra's bafflement. The conspiratorial looks she and Nasrin now exchange make her feel like a woman, finally, different from Durra who is still but a child. "So Fadl did keep his promise."

"He did indeed," Nasrin smirks.

Durra's eyes are as wide as saucers, but she--finally!--remembers her place and stays quiet. Nasrin but takes the jar offered to her by one of her servant-girls and begins to rub the ointment into her skin. And by the smell of it, the ointment contains the highest quality ambergris and oudh, something even the richest of courtesans would rarely be able to afford.

"Well, my lady?" Nasrin says, stroking her breasts in circular motions to help retain their firmness. "Aren't you going to ask what happened to the slip of a slave girl?"

"I am sure you are about to tell me." Yassamin nods to Durra, because the poor girl needs something to do--she heads for Yassamin's own toiletries and sets out to brush and oil her mistress's hair. "Do tell me, Nasrin. It sounds like an intriguing tale."

Nasrin sighs happily and leans back against the tiles, massaging her stomach and her hips, and now Yassamin can see they bear the faintest of stretch marks. "Indeed, our Barmakid bought me and made me his concubine. He truly was in love with me for a few years, to the point where he even gave me a child. A remarkable feat for a man who prefers boys, wouldn't you say?"

Durra groans, and even if Yassamin cannot see her, she can tell the girl is rolling her eyes. "They're all a bunch of sodomites! It's a miracle the family is as big as it is."

Nasrin glares at her. "Don't interrupt me, girl."

Yassamin raises her hand. "Would this be the sort of moment where a queen would say 'if you two do not behave, I will send both of you to the headsman?'"

"You are too late, mistress," Nasrin laughs as she massages the ointment into her thighs. "For it is in your royal executioner's bed that I enjoy conjugal bliss. You know the law--if a woman slave gifts her master with a babe, he has to manumit her and provide for the child. Well, by the time I'd had little Husayn, I'd ceased to look boyish and Fadl lost all interest in me. Thankfully, Masrur had already set his eyes on me, and it's he I've been married to ever since."

Yassamin shudders. She had caught a glimpse of Masrur during the ceremonies--she had never seen a man so huge, six foot seven at least, masked and dressed in furs like a barbarian. What a professional killer must be like as a lover, she does not want to know. "Rather you than me."

"That's what they all say," Nasrin says and pats her hands dry on her towel. "Believe it or not, I have found him far gentler a lover than Fadl. A man who knows how to inflict pain also knows how to spare a woman from it, whereas the same couldn't be said of most men. He's very good with his hands," Nasrin purrs.

Yassamin swallows a lump in her throat. Nasrin's experience, contrasted with her own innocence makes an ugly, cold fear stir in her guts once more: she has been unable to stop thinking of the pain and the bleeding of deflowerment. She sits there and stares at her hands, until she realises both Durra and Nasrin are expecting her to say something, but no words come out of her mouth.

Durra finishes plaiting Yassamin's hair and takes her by the shoulders, with a determined tone to her voice. "Now. Shall we talk about the young Caliph, my lady?"

Yassamin laughs nervously and looks up at Nasrin. "I take it that you know him better than most?"

Nasrin shrugs. "He is but a youth, so it's hard to say what kind of a man he will become. Like any ruler, he has his whims and his caprices. I would not call him as cruel as Fadl or as lecherous as Jaffar--however, when it comes to intelligence, he loses to both." She inspects her nails. "Which should make him an easy husband to rule. And he is quite handsome besides."

"That's what they all tell me," Yassamin mumbles. "You are the first one who has dared call him unintelligent, however."

"Who needs intelligence if you have the Barmakids to lend you theirs?" Durra interrupts.

Yassamin throws her hands into the air. "Oh, will you stop going on about the Barmakids?! What is this? The Abbasid Caliphate or the Barmakid Caliphate? All I keep hearing is Barmakids this and Barmakids that. I now know more about them than I know about the Commander of the Faithful himself."

Nasrin laughs warmly and pats her on the shoulder. "You will soon find out why that is, Your Highness. But know that my husband has the Grand Vizier's ear, should you ever need a favour. Jaffar trusts Masrur more than he trusts any of his own brothers, and Masrur is a master at keeping secrets."

As Nasrin gets up to leave, Yassamin but stares at her, dumbfounded. "Thank you."

When Nasrin is out of earshot, Durra clicks her tongue. "I wonder what sorts of favours she is after."

Yassamin huffs wryly. "I wouldn't know how to pay them. I suppose I would have to ask a Barmakid on how to do that, too? I half expect one of them to appear beside the Caliph's bed tomorrow night, giving us instructions."

Durra bursts into giggles at that, but Yassamin doesn't feel like laughing.

***

Her every limb shaking from nervousness, Yassamin steps out of her palanquin and takes her seat beside Ahmad underneath the bridal canopy. As he lifts her veil and smiles at her, the entire reception hall bursts into cheers and cries of delight: the bells and cymbals deafen her ears but all she can think of is Oh, but he is handsome. He is beardless, still, but he has fine, even features and large brown eyes that now look upon her with playfulness and mirth. His skin is warm as he takes her hand between his, smiling as he gazes upon her, seemingly stunned from the sight of her as well.

"I am pleased to meet you, my lady," he laughs a little nervously.

"I am pleased to meet you, my lord," she says, and as his smile widens, the excitement that had been swirling in her body now settles in her hips as heat.

As he turns to address the crowd, she devours him with her eyes, the man she is to share her life with: the young emperor, clad in white, as radiant as a lion in the sun, a long life ahead of him. She whispers a prayer of gratitude to God, having always feared she would be married off to an old tyrant. But Ahmad is as young and as nervous as she is; she needn't fear him. They will grow up together, grow into mighty rulers together, and govern the land with piety and wisdom.

When Ahmad sits down and gazes upon her, his kohled eyes heavy with desire, the heat in her hips consumes her entire body and she yearns to press against him. But no, no, not in public: she but squeezes his hand and smiles at him with equal desire. He is a little startled at first, but then laughs--oh, his teeth are a little crooked, but it's good to know he's not too perfect. Her husband, her husband, her sweet new husband; Ahmad squeezes her hand back, and her heart is filled with delight.

***

As the bridal procession takes them to the caliphal bedchamber, Yassamin glances at the intricately painted, honeycombed vaults above her. She has never been to the men's side of the palace, and here everything is much larger, grander even in comparison to her own apartments. But now she wishes she hadn't looked up, as the sight is dizzying; she is feeling lightheaded enough already.

Ahmad closes the door behind them and she is too overcome by shyness to even look at him; the only sound in the room is the tinkling of her jewelry as she stands within his bedchamber and breathes, breathes. The bed itself is vast, enormous, large enough for ten, with rose petals liberally scattered all over its fresh white sheets. Sheets that will soon be stained with her virgin blood, Merciful Lord--

"But you are shaking!" Ahmad says as he undoes her veil. She thinks he is about to kiss her, but he pulls her into a tight embrace instead. "You needn't fear me."

She bursts into a nervous laugh against his shoulder. "I am sorry, my lord."

He kisses her on the lips, but swiftly. "Call me Ahmad when we are in private, and I, too, shall call you Yassamin."

"I shall," she smiles. "Would you kiss me again, Ahmad?"

Ahmad raises his eyebrow. "You are an eager girl, aren't you? Very well."

And he kisses her, his mouth sweet from mint and basil. Her first kiss, her first real kiss: yet his tongue feels cold, unpleasant, like a cold piece of liver as he pushes it into her mouth. She chokes on it a little, then remembers that a good lover should respond to a kiss. Thus, she tries to kiss him back, to move her lips and to meet his tongue with her own, but he withdraws.

"Stay still, will you?"

"I'm sorry." Does he think her immodest? "What would you have me do, my lo--Ahmad?"

He lifts her chin. "It would be easiest for us both if you but followed me and let me show you how to please me. Now, will you let me do so?"

"Gladly," she laughs; she has gone over all the love manuals she knows in her head, but is now happy to forget them if he wants to take the lead. From what she has been told, Ahmad has had slave girls at least, so he must have more experience in the art of love, whereas Yassamin only has a head full of theory. As eager as she is, she now lets Ahmad kiss her again, to explore her mouth, trying very hard not to move her own teeth, tongue or lips so as not to displease him.

And as the most important quality in a wife is the desire to please her husband, to thus increase his happiness and glorify him, how could she not do as he asks? The queen is the kingmaker, it is said. He is to become the man she makes out of him, and she would not want to be responsible for him becoming a tyrant because she had made him unhappy. She is to be the source of his happiness and therefore the source of happiness for the entire empire. It is an enormous responsibility, a duty sacred in its importance: as she shelters him within her embrace, within her womb, so she shelters all of Persia.

And it is with these thoughts in her mind that she lets him undress her, lead her to the royal bed. He lies down on top of her and she is frightened of his cock as it bobs in and out of her sight, now pressing heated and hard against her belly as she hugs him to her chest.

"Still scared, my darling?" he asks and strokes her hair.

"How could I not be?" she asks, looking up at him. Perhaps she can tame her fear by touching his prick, by making love to it. Boldly, yet gently she clasps his cock, then moves down his body, about to kiss it just as she had seen Nasrin do to Fadl. It is a terrible sin, worse than sodomy, but she has also been told it is the greatest pleasure a woman can give to a man. "Please tell me how to please you, Ahmad," she says with a voice most honeyed, pressing her cheek against his cock, the wonderful heat of it.

But his cock softens a little in her hand, the rest of his body stiffening in shock. His eyes are wide, unreadable.

"You are not a virgin."

"But--"

"I have married a whore!"

She lets go of him and lifts herself up on her hands. "Ahmad! I am as virginal as I was on the day I was born!" she stammers, the honey that had pooled between her legs now cold, her desire struck dead.

Yet he keeps on staring at her, disbelieving, and she wants to be sick. She makes to touch his shoulder, but he flinches before she even touches him, looking as if a snake had bitten him. Yet she lays her hand on his arm, the brown, muscular arm she had admired but moments ago.

"Ahmad," she says, trying to sound as warm as possible. "I read it in a love manual."

"Those are for princes," he snaps, still eyeing her with suspicion.

"Why not princesses? Come, my love, what's the matter? Do you find it painful? I only wanted to give you pleasure," she says, choking back tears.

But he pushes his hand betwen her legs and feels for her virginity, angrily, as if inspecting a slave girl at a market. She has to close her eyes in order not to scream, but she is shaking, all of the muscles in her hips cramped, cold from horror. To be so humiliated on her wedding night, to be called a whore when she isn't, she isn't--but now she can no longer hold back the tears. "You are hurting me," she sobs.

He pulls his fingers out and wipes them on the sheets. "I believe you," he says warily. "You are an excitable girl. But don't do anything of the sort again unless I request it."

She takes his hand and buries her face in it, weeping. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry, my love. I am a woman of honour, and I will prove it to you."

"Shh." He kisses her hair. "Don't cry. Would you lie down for me?"

She wipes her eyes--oh, her hands are now messy from kohl, but she forces herself to calm down and lies down underneath him. "I am sorry," she mumbles still as Ahmad lies down on top of her and hushes her.

And as he takes her, it hurts, hurts because she is no longer aroused. Ahmad is not violent, even seems to be taking care not to cause her too much pain, but she does not enjoy him. For it is her heart that is cold, now, making her entire body cold in turn, his cock's blows dull and painful against her womb. On and on, he keeps grinding into her, monotonously, and she dares not move in case he should think her whorish. He laughs a little as he looks down and sees her blood now staining his cock, leans down to kiss her in relief, but that disgusts her: that he should ever have doubted her, that he needed her blood as proof. Yet she answers his kiss, buries her face in his shoulder as he begins to thrust once more, hoping that he will take her pained sobs for those of pleasure.

He goes on and on, seemingly forever, her blood slick between her buttocks, the metallic scent of it stinging her nostrils. For a few moments, she thinks she can feel a little pleasure akin to the sort she has experienced when masturbating, particularly when he kisses her and moves within her more slowly, but in her heart, she is thoroughly disappointed. Finally, finally he groans low in his belly and trembles on top of her: she can feel more slickness in her cunny and she knows he has finished. She holds him and kisses his cheek, stroking his back, pretending she is happy for him when it's her own relief that now moves her hands and lips.

"Did I please you, my love?" she asks timidly when he withdraws and lies down beside her.

"It wasn't too bad," he laughs, stroking her hip.

And that's all he can say? she thinks, trying not to cry again. "You have to teach me how to become a better lover for you, my king," she says, hoping her voice sounds humble enough.

He takes a handkerchief and wipes her blood from his cock. "I thought queens only wanted children from their husbands, not pleasure. You have my seed; does that not satisfy you?"

"But I thought we were to--"

"You thought of improprieties unfit for a queen. If I want pleasure, I have singing-girls for that."

"How can you say that?" she finally snaps. "A husband has duties towards his wife, too. Is the Commander of the Faithful exempt from those?"

He tosses the wet rag into her hands. "Watch your tongue."

She tosses the rag back, angrily, no longer able to disguise her tears. "Did I not stir you? Is it that you find me ugly?"

He shakes his head. "What a shrew I have married, nagging at me on our wedding night!" He strokes her shoulder. "I find you beautiful indeed, and would hardly have been able to perform had you not stirred me."

"Then what's wrong with me?" she asks him.

Bizarrely, he pulls her into his arms, kissing her tears. "Come, come. You are but a confused girl."

Says the boy not old enough to even grow a beard, she thinks. "I was never told a wife should not experience pleasure."

"Very few women do on their first night, I am told. Perhaps, the next time, you will enjoy me more."

"But--" she is still utterly confused. "How would I know how a queen should behave in bed? How would I know not to act in a way that... demeans me, reduces me to a slave girl?"

"You did fine," he says, caressing her hair. "Although I would have less of the nagging next time. And should you not find me pleasant, I promise to leave you in peace once you are with child."

And where would I find my pleasure, then? she thinks, hysterically, almost says it in his face. She thinks of all the tales she has heard of wives cheating on their husbands, and while she had never understood the deceitfulness of such women, she finds she can sympathise with them now. But she doubts whether she is brave enough, clever enough to even think of such things.

"Please don't hate me," she asks instead, clinging to Ahmad, desperate, hating herself even as she hears herself say those words. He is all she has, now, and even if she is confused, even if she hurts, she has no choice but to make the most of it. She is married to him, now, and few queens would ever divorce and remarry.

"I don't hate you, you silly girl," Ahmad says, extricating himself. He smiles at her, but his eyes are distant, his face that of a fool who will not, or simply cannot understand her. If he's always had what he's wanted, if the people around him have always been eager to please him, disguising their disappointment and pain whenever he had given it to them, how could he ever understand her? She had struggled to understand others herself when growing up, only recently having realised people disguised their true feelings in front of a princess. But Ahmad doesn't seem to have developed such an instinct, the empathy a normal person would have.

"Thank you," she but says, kissing his hand.

"It must have been such a long and stressful day for you, my love," he says and kisses her hand in turn. "I should let you rest."

"But--where are you going?" she says as he gets up and shrugs a robe over his shoulders.

He gestures towards the bloodstains on the sheets. "That should be enough for the court to prove we have done our duty. Would you rather not sleep in your own bedchamber instead of that mess?"

***

A quarter of an hour later, she lies curled up on her own bed, weeping. She howls, howls from the bottom of her lungs until her belly hurts, Ahmad's sperm bursting out of her with her sobs. She cannot stop weeping, even has to retch into her chamberpot, weeping even more as she sees the half-digested sugar almonds and other wedding treats thus wasted. Her entire life, her beauty, her youth wasted, married to an idiot, an idiot: oh, she should have known better, should have rejected him when she'd had the chance, should have been content to remain an old maid.

She wipes vomit from her mouth and throws herself on her pillows, weeping until the moon is high in the sky, weeping until she can weep no more.

Chapter Text

Jaffar smashes his crystal into a thousand pieces, yet Yassamin's sobs still echo in his ears, the sight of her curled up in pain burning underneath his eyelids.

"I am going to kill him," he murmurs, not caring for his bleeding knuckles or the shock upon Khurshid's face.

"Master--"

"I am going to kill him," Jaffar says, calmly, steadily, staring into the darkness of the study, feeling as if his entire body is made of but cold, dead stone. "I am going to rip out his heart and hold it up to his face as I crush it in my fist."

A thousand furious blue eyes stare back at him from the shards of the crystal, Khurshid so silent in his terror he barely breathes.

"What we have just witnessed, Khurshid--who would dare attach the sacred name of Love to that?" he pants, beside himself with disgust, grief and rage. "It's a travesty. Ahmad can't even piss through that thing without assistance. Why did I ever let him take her to his bed? Why, God, why?" he now cries, a sob hitching in his throat. "Does he not know one moment is all it takes to shatter a woman forever, make her hate men forever? And I--I am the one who arranged this atrocity, this violation of her body and her soul. I might as well have thrown her to a rapist," he groans, lifting his bloodied hand to his face. "I have ruined her, Khurshid, ruined an innocent girl. Why hasn't God yet struck me down for my crime? Why?"

It takes a while for Khurshid to answer, even his voice wavering as he musters up all his kindness so as not to offend Jaffar. "Have faith, master. Perhaps this is part of God's greater plan, and perhaps this is not the end of the tale. Perhaps this is a sign from God telling us we must act; that there is yet something we can do."

"Like what?" Jaffar snaps, only now realising his hand is bleeding. He wipes it on the front of his court robe, over the elaborate embroideries praising Ahmad's name. "Do tell me, for I am not jesting. I have a mind to take my dagger and slay him where he sleeps."

"Your brother covets the throne, does he not?"

Jaffar rolls his eyes. "Fadl and all the rest of them; you know they do. And you also know it would mean a civil war. If Fadl were to claim the throne, now, Musa would have a fit and try and seize it for himself. What with the heathen troops he has been raising in Daylam, he might be approaching us right now and we just don't know it yet. Who knows, even Mohammad might finally emerge from his hole in Samarkand just to see if he could have a chance of becoming Caliph. For all I know, even Dunya has designs to become empress--if Rome is ruled by a woman, why not the Caliphate?" he groans, exasperated. "Tell me, Khurshid, am I the only one in my family who doesn't dream of being the head of this sorry empire?"

"Then, perhaps, it means you are the only one fit to rule it."

"Stop talking nonsense. I do not desire the throne, only the woman who now shares it unwillingly. And you know there's no reason for Ahmad to divorce her--he would just forget about her, let her rot in the harem until the end of her days. When I would--" his voice wavers. "I would love her the way she deserves to be loved, Khurshid," he whispers and covers his face with his hands, unable to disguise his tears. "And would not call her a whore no matter what she did."

"Then there is only one recourse, master. I doubt you need me to tell you what it is, however."

Jaffar does not take his hands from his face. "Even if I got her to love me, Ahmad would have both our heads on a platter. And I doubt I could bribe Masrur to let us go; Ahmad would have his head in turn."

"No, master. I mean that you have means of having her for yourself without our lord and master ever finding out."

Jaffar glares at Khurshid through his bloodstained, kohl-stained fingers.

Khurshid lays his hand over Jaffar's arm and grins conspiratorially. "I mean magic."

***

Magician or not, Jaffar is determined to try more traditional methods first. And Yassamin needs time--he can hardly expect her to swoon into his arms straight away when she barely knows him. And as he had not made the best of impressions upon their first meeting, there is a lot of damage to repair.

And that damage is, he hopes, not as bad as what Ahmad has inflicted upon her. The few times Jaffar manages to catch a glimpse of Yassamin, she seems quiet, not at all like the spirited girl he had met in Basra. He yearns to talk to her, yearns to comfort her, but as he is not a close enough relative, it's impossible for him to meet her in private. The only time he and Yassamin get to exchange words is whenever Ahmad invites both of them to his quarters--usually, to drink, to get away from the hustle and bustle of the court. On these nights, Yassamin sits beside them, tantalisingly close, she and the minstrel-girls separated from the men by a thin curtain.

But tonight is different. For now, for the first time, Ahmad has shooed away the guards who would have drawn the curtains between them, chased away his musicians and his boon companions, insisting they should leave the three of them alone. He must have had his reasons, but Jaffar does not care: as Ahmad tears back the curtain to reveal Yassamin's blushing face, all he can hear is the pounding of his own heart.

I have beheld a beauty like that of the moon, the old verses now sing through Jaffar's mind as Yassamin casts down her eyes and draws her veil closer about her cheeks. Distant, white, radiant; her beams rendering me a swooning madman.

"You are like a brother unto me, you see," Ahmad slurs as he drops onto his cushions beside Jaffar. "Therefore, she is your sister. And you would hardly seduce your own sister, now, would you?" he snorts, laughing at his own joke. "But now, I need to piss," Ahmad mumbles and thrusts his cup into Jaffar's hand. "Hold this. I trust my wife into your hands."

Ahmad slaps Jaffar's shoulder and the wine spills all over his robes, but Jaffar doesn't care. As Ahmad stumbles towards the privy, Jaffar finds himself smiling, smiling like a fool.

"I will make sure to hold you very gently, then," he says to Yassamin, softly, with no true teasing to his voice. He is too happy, too entranced by her beauty, by the way she now flushes from his words.

She adjusts her veil nervously. "Even your manners seem refined in comparison to his, my lord." But she is returning his smile, now, and it's as if she becomes lighter, happier now that Ahmad has left the room.

"Trust me when I say that whatever good manners that boy has, he has learned them from my family," Jaffar murmurs. "A woman such as yourself would have deserved better. Not a day goes by that I do not feel sorry for you, my lady."

"And what makes you think I want your pity?" she snaps.

He sets his cup down quickly, spilling yet more wine onto his hands. "I didn't mean--"

"But you did," she says, lifting her chin defiantly.

"Please," he says, and maybe it is the wine that emboldens him; perhaps he is a fool, but he clasps her hand. "Accept my apologies."

She looks at her hand in his, the wine now staining her sleeve, then glances up into his eyes. Her lips tremble a little, and her eyes flash as if she is about to shout at him, but she lowers her gaze instead. And the sigh that emerges from her chest is terrible to hear, so laden is it with profound sorrow.

"There is little sense in dwelling on how things could have been; God knows best. And while you might pity me, I am still queen, am I not? Being married to a fool is a small price to pay for such an honour: I could have been born into a family of beggars, could have been married to a thief."

"Yet I would not see my queen suffer," Jaffar says, his voice full of tenderness. "If there's anything I can do to lift your spirits, my lady, anything to help you smile, then tell me."

She looks up and smiles a little, her eyes wet from tears. "You have lifted my spirits already, as it happens. With Bahadur. I went to hunt with him for the first time this Thursday."

"Did he catch anything?"

"The finest of gazelles, far plumper than the one your brother's animal managed to snatch." She looks around to make sure Ahmad is still out of earshot and she leans towards Jaffar, grinning. "And think of it: our righteous Caliph's pard caught nothing. You should have seen the look on his face!"

And now Jaffar bursts into laughter, imagining it, Ahmad huffing and puffing like the child he is--and as Yassamin shares in his laughter, his heart somersaults in his chest. "I am glad."

But now, going by the noises, the child-king is returning. Jaffar glances at the door and squeezes her hand. "I would talk to you again, my lady," he says before he lets go. "But wait for a word from my eunuch."

The look upon Yassamin's face is strange, curious; still, she nods and smiles.

That smile is enough to make him walk around in a stunned haze for the entire week.

***

Ever since her wedding night, Yassamin's bed has been crowded with cats. As she had lain there weeping, one, two, then three had trotted over to comfort her. And since then, she has had three curled up in her bed at least, sometimes half a dozen or even more. It baffles her that this should be so--is her sorrow that great, or is this typical of the cats in Baghdad?

"We have thousands upon thousands of cats here," the women had told her, "perhaps more than you've been used to in Basra." And that's what Yassamin had presumed, until the children of the harem had started to visit her quarters in search of the cats, asking her where their furred playmates were hiding.

And today is no exception: little Husayn has just plucked his favourite white tom from the bed and run off with him, despite the cat's loud protests.

"I'm sorry," Yassamin says to Nasrin, baffled. "I have no idea where they come from. I only ever used to sleep with my pard next to me, maybe one or two cats. Never have I experienced the like."

Nasrin leans over and sniffs her hair. "It must be your perfume. Valerian? Cat-mint?"

She shakes her head. "I never wear them."

Nasrin nods and sniffs a little more. "That's oudh--and that's roses--no, I have never heard of those attracting cats. A good oudh drives my man wild, however," she leers. "How about yours?"

Yassamin pinches her brow and groans. "I am praying for the war to start."

"Don't even joke about such things! You know the lot of women in war."

"Fine," she says and glares at Nasrin. "A hunting accident, then! A poisoned wine-cup."

"So that's how bad it is?"

"Worse."

Nasrin rubs Yassamin's back. "You sound like an embittered old wife already. But we can't have that. How about we find you a lover?"

"I would rather drown myself in the Tigris."

"You would prefer these creatures to a man?" Nasrin says and pokes at one of the cats, earning herself a grumble.

Yassamin groans and lies down upon the bed, gathering the grumbling cat to her chest and petting it until it starts to purr. "I wish I was with child already, so that I wouldn't have to look at a prick ever again."

"Now, that's a fat load of old nonsense. You've only met one, attached to a boy who doesn't know how to use it."

Yassamin winces. "I think I'm bruised on the inside."

"That's exactly what I mean. A good man doesn't do that, no matter how big he is. Why, my husband must be possessed of all of nine inches--"

"Will you stop talking about your conjugal bliss when I am miserable?"

Nasrin lies down opposite her and grins. "You know what they say--it's only love that can heal love's wounds. Did you hear even our Grand Vizier is consumed by a love-madness?"

Yassamin should not have felt a stab in her chest at that, should not have. She plays with the cat's fur, feigning disinterest. "Oh?"

"Yes; it's most strange. He has been caught pining and daydreaming, even smiling more than usual, which is a first. They say it might even be a woman, this time." Nasrin scritches the cat behind the ear. "I doubt it myself. Masrur will always deny it, but on some nights, I can smell Jaffar on him, taste a little oil still lingering upon his prick. A man who enjoys being taken like a boy, at Jaffar's age? What use would he have for a woman? Myself, I suspect it's the pretty little eunuch he bought not a month ago. The Circassian boy."

"I wouldn't know," Yassamin says quietly, the pain in her chest now so acute she cannot breathe.

***

"Mother, I am in love."

"And now, you tell me? You're a fool, Jaffar. I've seen it on your face for months. You stagger about like a besotted maiden; it's a wonder you don't walk into walls."

"Don't jest, Mother. It's embarrassing enough to be the fool."

"Is it the Circassian boy?"

"Mother!" Jaffar glares at her, sitting down next to her. "This is serious. It... she is a woman."

Ettabeh puts down the date she had been chewing on and looks at him, truly looks at him. "Well!" she exclaims, genuinely surprised. "There's a change of heart."

"Yes, well." Jaffar looks at his slippers and sighs. "Why else do you think I am miserable?"

Ettabeh nods. "And you have come to ask me for help. Despite what happened the last time."

Jaffar flashes his eyes at her, his hand sliding to the hilt of his dagger. "Have a care, Mother; I have told you not to speak of it. Besides, Harun is dead. He will not interfere this time."

Ettabeh chews on her date for a long while, sips her sugar milk, eats another date. She washes her hands and wipes them on a towel, then leans back upon her cushions, regarding Jaffar for a long while before she speaks. "Does Yassamin return your love?"

Jaffar is too stunned to reply at first, blinking for long moments before he answers. "How did you know it was her?"

Ettabeh rolls her eyes. "The hunting-pard, the perfumes, the slaves, the clothes, all bought with money from the Barmakid coffers. Come, son! Do you think me blind?"

"Didn't you think me a sodomite?"

"I personally told her you were one."

"Mother!" She has ruined everything, oh--Jaffar covers his face with his hands and groans, throwing himself upon the cushions. "What have you done?"

Ettabeh shrugs. "The gifts did look suspicious, even if you made them seem anonymous. So I did wonder. But can you blame me for not thinking it unlikely you should fall in love with a woman again? Especially what with the Circassian boy."

Jaffar lifts his face from his hands, shouting, now. "I bought Khalil for her!"

"He looks like her, too, come to think of it. Enough to pass for her brother, or even a sister. Were you thinking of what I am now thinking, my son?"

"What?"

"That she should don his clothes and visit you in private?"

Jaffar shakes his head. "I would not dare risk it. I was thinking of using him as a messenger."

"Do you know what I think you should do?" Ettabeh leans towards Jaffar, her eyes lighting up with a fire he has not seen in them for many years. It is her plotting look, the look they tell legends of, and now, his heart is racing. He takes her hand and he is grinning, grinning so hard his face aches.

"Tell me, Mother."

"Now, I want you to listen very carefully. I am going to tell you about a garden."

***

Yassamin squirms upon her cushions and hopes Ahmad will not notice her restlessness. It's unlikely, as he's in his cups again, talking animatedly to Jaffar as if she were not there. But this only pleases her, for once Ahmad's back is turned, she can gaze at Jaffar freely, and as usual, she finds her husband wanting in comparison. Oh, it is terrible to watch, almost painful: Ahmad's hands clumsy, always spilling the wine, whereas Jaffar's long, elegant fingers curl around his cup as if in a caress--yes, a caress. It's all she can think of, now, the way Jaffar's every movement, every gesture is imbued with a heat, a sensuality Ahmad lacks. For Jaffar's movements are slow and naturally beautiful, their arcs soft and rounded, possessed of an effortless grace she has hitherto only ever observed in cats. By God, even the way he lifts his cup to his lips suggests a kiss more lascivious than any of the clumsy mouthings Ahmad has ever gifted her with!

Watching Jaffar move, watching him walk is utter torture for her: even when Ahmad makes love to her, he never moves his hips the way Jaffar does when he merely puts one foot in front of the other. Yassamin's head is filled with inappropriate thoughts, inappropriate for a woman married. If that's how Jaffar moves when he is clothed, how does he move without his clothes on? Oh, this is not her own mind that speaks these words to her, now; surely it is the devil upon her shoulder, whispering filth into her ears. She shivers and has to cast down her eyes, so as not to burst into flames.

"Meet him in the menagerie," Khalil had said. "At the cat house, the lattice facing the rose garden, Friday evening, two hours before sunset."

And now, it's Friday afternoon and Ahmad looks as if he is about to pass out from drink: Jaffar glances at Yassamin over the brim of his cup and smiles, barely touching the wine with his lips. Yet Yassamin is still not sure what he wants of her, dares not hope. An exclusive sodomite, that's what they'd all told her--and how could he not be, the way he moves and speaks like a woman? And does she not find him infuriating, his manners atrocious?

Yet, that evening, she hastens to the cat house with her veil billowing behind her, her heart pounding in her chest. Khalil had suggested she should take his clothes and dress as a page for her own safety, but no, no: even if it might mean losing her head, she wants to meet Jaffar as a woman. Not as a boy, not as a princess, not as a queen: as Yassamin.

The old cat house is in a sorry state from disuse, dilapidated, its pink paint flaking off its once-beautiful walls. Aziz tells her that before Ahmad, it had held tigers and lions, but as Ahmad did not care for great cats beside hunting-pards--he had been too impatient to take on the long, ardurous, often fruitless task of taming them, cheetahs being far easier to befriend--it is now a near-ruin. Once they reach the door, Yassamin takes the lantern from Aziz and asks for him to leave her alone in the house, telling him she was told this was the only place in which she could pray and meditate in peace. And to her astonishment, there is a knowing look in Aziz's eyes as he gives her the keys. Perhaps this is not the first time he has done this; perhaps this is why he has served so long at the harem.

For few people know of the existence of this place: the wooden latticework windows give out into an old garden on the men's side of the palace, a garden so overgrown with rosebushes they cover the entire lattice. Khalil, himself new at the palace, had told her it was impossible to tell there were windows behind the bushes, making it an ideal trysting place for those in the know.

And it is behind the lattice that she now sits, waiting, waiting.

There's a rustle of fabric, a crackle of dead leaves, and a shadowed figure sits opposite her on the other side of the lattice. He has swathed himself in loose black robes, drawn the tails of his turban over his face, but by his eyes, Yassamin recognises the man for Jaffar.

Her heart leaps into her throat, but she tries to pretend she is calm, acknowledging him with a queenly detachment. "What was it that you wanted to see me for, my lord?" she whispers.

He unmasks himself and smiles, his eyes sparkling bright. "There's no need to whisper. I have made sure we are not being listened to. Except, perhaps, by God's angels."

She peers through the lattice to better see him. "What troubles you, then, my lord?"

"Many things trouble me, but not the sight of your face, my lady."

She casts down her eyes and flushes. "Did you come here to but charm me, or were we to talk more important matters?"

"Are there matters more important than love?" he grins, and all she can see through the lattice are his teeth, crooked and gleaming, his lips still stained red from Ahmad's wine. The very sight is reminiscent of a beast having taken a bite of his prey, yet why does it now make her flush with warmth all over?

She draws her veil about her bosom. "Do not toy with me, Barmakid. If you must know, I have been told about you and your inclinations."

He lets out a deep, exasperated sigh, but she does not allow him to continue. "My lord. Are you here to warn me? Has the time finally come?"

"The time for what?"

"Fadl. Or Musa, or whoever it is that now seeks the throne. I have heard rumours of a coming civil war."

Jaffar waves his hand dismissively. "Those have been circulating for years."

"Is there any truth to them?"

"Some." He looks as if he is about to tell her more, but changes his mind at the last moment. "But that is not why I am here, my lady." His voice turns softer and he presses against the lattice, seeking her eyes with his. "I came here to cleanse my reputation, to make amends for having behaved like such a rogue towards you."

"That would take some doing," she quips, but without malice.

"Then, I shall do it. It pains me to see how he treats you," he sighs. "I meant what I said--if there's anything I can do to lighten your heart, my lady, to give you at least a little happiness, gladly would I do it."

And now, she is too tired, too weary to hate him for pitying her. She presses her forehead against the lattice and sighs in turn. "I do not know what you mean by these words, Barmakid. You speak as if you were in love with me, but what am I to think?"

He reaches through the lattice with his fingertips as if to touch her, but at the last moment, he curls his fingers around a wooden vine instead. "What would it take to convince you that I... that I cherished you?" he asks, so softly it is painful to hear. "That your image has so filled my heart it has left no room for another?"

And the way his voice wavers is a shock, a twisting pain in her stomach, making her feel a monster towards a man this vulnerable. "I wouldn't know," she says, her own voice cracking now, tears filling her eyes. "Forgive me, my lord--how would I know, indeed, if I have never been loved?" And it is a horrible thing to say, an awful thing to say, but it is the truth, and now she cannot stop weeping. She has never been loved. She has never been loved. She has never been loved.

"Then know that I do, my lady." He swallows. "There. I've said it. I love you, my lady Yassamin. For better or for worse."

She wipes her eyes. "Oh, Jaffar, you barely know me."

"But better than your husband does. Come." And now he lies down on his side and reaches past the rosebushes, through one of the wider slats at the bottom of the lattice. The gap is so small it only allows him to push his hand through it up to his palm and she stares at it, stares: his hand is beading with blood from the thorns, yet he does not say anything, only waits.

She thinks of the few conversations they have had, of those moments she had realised she and Jaffar had read a book Ahmad hadn't, of when she had laughed at Jaffar's jokes when Ahmad had merely stared, dumbfounded. She thinks of the delight she had felt whenever they had made a connection, the elation of it, one immediately suffocated by shame when Ahmad had glared at them. She thinks of the warmth in her cheeks, her hips whenever Jaffar has smiled at her wickedly, the way she has failed to keep her eyes downcast in his presence--oh, she does not know what to do with these feelings, never having experienced them before in her life.

Yet she has been told love leaves one exactly like this: confused, bewildered, lost.

Is this it, then? Is this love?

If she ran away from him, now, ran back into the harem, she would never find out: to do so would be unthinkable. Her heart is wounded, empty, yearning to be filled with love; and before her, lies a man willing to do so, to love her, to love her: the very thought makes her light-headed.

Thus, with a sigh, she lies down and closes her fingers around his; his hand is warm, gentle, and she wishes she had the courage to kiss it.

"I do not hate you, Jaffar, son of Yahya," she whispers, quietly.

He laughs, a little nervously. "That's something at least. But know that I would love you well, if you but let me. And that I would be patient and not rush you, no matter how long it took for your heart to thaw."

She shakes her head. "My heart was never made of ice; not for you."

"So you never hated me?" His eyes flash with delight.

"A little," she grins. "You are quite terrifying when you want to be, Barmakid. What maiden would not be frightened of you? I only stopped fearing you when I heard you were a sodomite."

He groans. "I suppose there's little sense in denying that. But most men can indulge in that sin without losing their love for women; surely you know this?"

"Your mother told me some terrible event in your past had made you lose yours," she says.

"And she would be right," he whispers, then remains silent for a while. "I will tell you about it sometime," he says. "My heart has not stirred for a woman since before you were born. What is that, now--fifteen years? Sixteen? Does that not convince you that what I feel for you is true?"

"No, Jaffar. Tell me now. If I am to love you, I must also know whatever ghosts stand between your heart and mine."

"Must you?" he snaps.

The bitterness in his voice frightens her. Immediately, she regrets her words. "Well, I--"

He withdraws his hand and lies down on his back. "I came here to love you," he says to himself, his voice low. "And this--" he looks up at the darkening sky and as he blinks, a tear rolls down his temple. "If this is the price I have to pay--my God--"

But now, Yassamin reaches through the lattice, cutting her hand with the thorns in turn. And as her hand is but a child's in comparison to his, it slips through completely; she touches his arm, soft, apologetic. "I'm sorry, Jaffar. I should not have asked. Will you forgive me?"

He wipes his eyes on his sleeve. "I wish I could ask for your love in exchange for what I am about to tell you," he mumbles, his eyes flashing behind the lattice. "But that would be too easy, wouldn't it?" He takes her hand and clasps it violently, so tight he is hurting her. "I would be honest with you, fair. But promise to me you will respect my sorrow as I have respected yours, for it is not an easy matter to talk about."

She squeezes his hand. "I promise." And now she is horrified, horrified at what he might tell her. She should never have asked, but it's too late to turn back, now.

"I loved a woman I should not have loved," he says, turning his eyes to the sky once more. "And a princess at that," he laughs. "Never did I believe I would be fool enough to make the same mistake again, but there you have it."

"What happened?"

"You have heard of the great Harun al-Rashid, his power and his might--and his madness. He would have taken down the entire Caliphate had it not been for my family. He realised our worth, for we had built his empire for him, but he was also jealous of us, to the point of insanity. Would you believe he married me to one of his sisters, then made us both swear we would never consummate the union?"

"Whatever for?"

"So that he could take both of us to his bed." He glances at her, his voice thick with bitterness. "There, is that shocking enough for you, my lady? A little incest, a little sodomy? Would you I continued my tale, or are you sick in your throat already?"

"I am not a child," she says, ignoring his taunt, refusing to let go of his hand. "Pray, continue."

"It was only Abbasa I loved. Yet it was Harun's fat belly I had to lie underneath, his stinking kisses I had to endure, his wet prick I had to take after it had swum in his sister's flesh. You see, first he would lie with her, then have his release in me so as not to get her with child, using me like a boy uses a silk kerchief," he spits. "Night after night I had to watch him violate the woman who was my wife, the woman I loved with all my heart. I still remember the way she looked at me as he grunted on top of her, how she pleaded for my help with her eyes, yet I could do nothing for fear of losing my head." He lowers his gaze. "I was a coward. I should have slain him where he lay."

"I am sorry," she says.

"You should be. I am not sure if God has yet forgiven me, or if He ever will." Jaffar's palm is now so damp from sweat he has to wipe it upon his robes; he takes her hand once more and turns to face her. "Would you hear the rest of it?"

"Tell me," she says, even if the tale turns her stomach.

"Harun left for his pilgrimage to Mecca, while I remained at the palace to take care of his affairs. During those months, Abbasa and I were happy, promised to each other we would escape before he returned. Yet Harun remained on his travels far longer than any of us had expected: he had been gone for over a year, and in that time, Abbasa had given birth to twins. A boy and a girl," he says, smiling wistfully. "As beautiful as two little stars in the firmament."

And Jaffar does not pause to wipe his eyes: tears run freely down his face, now, streaking his cheeks with kohl. And it is strange that this sight should now remind Yassamin of the story of how the cheetah got its facial markings: of how, in the beginning of time, a mother cheetah lost her cubs and wept and wept for so long her tears burned twin streaks upon her face.

Yassamin knows where Jaffar's story must be leading, and wishes she could disappear, now, dissolve this very instant from her anguish; but she has to keep on listening. Jaffar cannot stop, now that he has started; to tell him to omit the rest would be cruel.

"We thought he would never come back," he continues. "We were too happy, lulled into foolishness by our own bliss. And of course, one night, he did come back. To make a long story short, he took Abbasa, took our children and--"

But now, he is weeping too much to speak, curling up on the ground, holding his turban tails to his face to suffocate his sobs. And all through his tears, Yassamin holds his hand, holds it, not caring if he is bruising her with his grip. I am here, Jaffar. I am here.

As he finally pulls the silk from his mouth, his face is wet from spittle and tears. "He had them buried alive," he pants, staring at the ground, unseeing. "Underneath his bedchamber. The very room your husband now sleeps in. There are nights when I can still hear them, hear their screams as he--I--"

"Jaffar." She is weeping now, too, sobbing in her horror--to think that she had slept in that room, had lain underneath Ahmad in it! She had always hated that room, and no wonder, no wonder. Her marriage bed, over a dead woman and her children, crying out for justice? It's monstrous; she retches a little, but no vomit comes out. Instead, she claws at the lattice, rattles it to see if she could break it, reach out to hold Jaffar in her arms.

But Jaffar stops her, pressing his other hand to the lattice, leaning his forehead against it. "Yassamin, don't. You will bring the whole wall down. And I would not have them discover us." He lifts his face. "Now, do you see why I took the utmost precautions?" he laughs, coldly. "To even speak to you in private?"

She squeezes his hand, swallowing her tears. "I am sorry, Jaffar. So sorry. I had no idea." And even as she says it, she knows she sounds naive. Of course she should have had an idea; had she not grown up at a mighty court, knowing the high cost of disobeying a mighty ruler? Yet she had never personally known anyone who had gambled with his life and survived, anyone who had lost a loved one because of her father's tyranny.

But now, to have a real man, a man of flesh and blood weeping beside her, a real human being who had lost everything--she cannot stop trembling. But she trembles more when she thinks of what they are risking now, at this very moment. What if Ahmad demanded Jaffar's head? What if she, Yassamin, were to join Abbasa and her babes underneath the bedchamber floor?

"Jaffar. You should not love me. This is madness, absolute madness. I would not have this happen to us."

"Thankfully, your Ahmad is but a child," Jaffar says, wiping his face on his sleeve. "But a puppet. We Barmakids made damned sure there would never be another Harun again," he says. "Not a Caliph upon the throne whom we could not control."

"Yet he has power over your life, and mine."

He lets go of her hand. "I would not condemn you to such a fate. This is why I hesitated to tell you; even tried to kill my love for you. Do you know, I drank myself to unconsciousness each night for a week after I first met you? I could not bear the thought of falling in love with a woman again, if it meant her death."

She laughs dryly. "A hundred lashes sounds light in comparison. Perhaps if I were but a merchant's wife, perhaps if it weren't for kings and harem walls and lattices, I would have run away with you long ago, son of Yahya."

"Oh, I would take you away," he sighs, his voice warmer, now, soft with renewed desire. He sighs again, then leans down to kiss her palm, the scratch of his moustache a spark of heat along her arm. He holds her hand to his cheek and murmurs against it, kissing it again and again. "I would take you far away from here, keep you and love you so well, so well; love you as you deserve to be loved."

She shivers against his touch, her cunny tightening, her womb so heated that this heat now surges into her breasts, snaking up her neck, making all of her hair stand on end. "If it weren't for Ahmad..."

"If it weren't for Ahmad..." Jaffar continues, kissing her wrist and oh, but his grin is filthy, lascivious even through his tears. "I would kiss you like this. And not only your hand, my child."

And she imagines it, imagines his lips upon her body and she cries out, presses her thighs tighter together, light-headed from her tears, her arousal. "Please, don't stop."

"I shan't."

And it is at that that she feels his tongue and she bites down on a shriek, clawing at the lattice, panting against it. She has never known a desire like this before, a desire now even more acute because of its danger, perhaps, because of the illicit nature of this kiss. Ahmad had thought her a whore, so what does it matter, now? What does anything matter? she laughs a madwoman, a broken little laugh; now, she pushes her hand out as far as she can, not even caring that she is now tearing her sleeve.

"Perhaps your brother should slay him," she murmurs in her love-madness, moaning as he scrapes his teeth against the ball of her thumb. She is wet, now, wet and it's as if another woman were now speaking through her, a would-be murderess born from this flame he has now ignited inside of her, Ahmad's maltreatment of her his kindling.

"Perhaps he should, indeed," Jaffar groans, cupping her palm against his cheek. "Perhaps I should ask Fadl, perhaps--"

And at that moment, as her cunny contracts, she feels the pain Ahmad has left there, feels the pain Ahmad has left in her heart and wants to be rid of it, wants Jaffar to tear it from her. She wants to run away with Jaffar, run with him forever and ever like wild cheetahs. She wants him to take her, possess her over and over until the pain is gone, until no sorrow remains. She wants to tell him to do it, wants to, but it is then that he withdraws, leaves her lying there in a rumpled, panting heap, her silks wet between her thighs.

"Jaffar?"

He lets out a huffing laugh and shakes his head. "If you touch me again, you will undo me. No, don't speak either," he says, raising his hand. "One word from your lips might do it, too," he grins, adjusting himself in his robes.

She pulls herself up by the lattice and gazes at him through it, at the erection now rising in his robes, thrilled by the discovery of the power she now exerts over him. And that power now uncoils within her, swirls out of her as she withdraws her hand with a caress. "What if I wanted to undo you, Jaffar?" she murmurs.

"Oh, Yassamin, I--" He lifts himself to his knees and leans against the lattice, clawing at it with both hands, his hips rising against it, seeking her touch. And there, there, his erection--he presses it against the woodwork and his voice becomes but a choked, high-pitched cry. "Yassamin--"

"You know, Jaffar," she says, stroking his cheek with her fingertips, grinning at him the way she has never grinned at a man before. "I might very well be in love with you."

He shakes his head, writhes so that the entire lattice creaks, now. "Do not jest, my lady. Do not jest."

"What makes you think I'm jesting?" she says, innocently, her fingertips upon his mouth, her cunny pulsing at his desire, the wet heat of his breath upon her hand. "I am loving you this very moment, am I not?"

"Yassamin, Yassamin," he repeats her name like a prayer, shuffling upon his feet. With an awful, pained groan, he tears himself free and for a moment, she wonders if she has, indeed, undone him.

He squeezes his prick through his robes and hisses through his teeth, staring at her, staring. "What are you doing to me?"

Short of breath herself, she clutches at the lattice, half so that she will not stroke herself, too. She is glad of the lattice, glad of the wood and the thorns between them, for she knows that she would, now, throw herself upon him otherwise. She wants him, oh, but she wants him; oh, how she would have him relieve her cunny of this terrible ache that now makes it impossible for her to sit down.

But no, not like this. This is not the time or the place, and they both know it.

When she finally speaks, her voice sounds strange to her ears, huskier, heavier. "I will say this, Jaffar, son of Yahya," she smiles. "I have little doubt as to whether your love is true, now."

He laughs and lets go of his erection, clutching at his thigh instead. "I apologise. He has a will of his own."

"I was talking about your heart, you fool!" she laughs, but feasts her eyes upon the thick bulge nevertheless. "Although your body does not displease me, either."

"Both are yours to deal with as you please, my lady," he says and spreads out his arms; "I am your slave. Only give me the time and the place, and I shall give you all of myself," he says with a grin and a glint in his eyes that makes her shiver; "that, I promise."

And at that, she is at a loss. How could she give him a time and a place when she does not even know herself, who she is any longer? How would she know how to embark upon, arrange, conduct a love affair? Surely, Jaffar would know better? For she is but a child, he thirty years her senior: she barely knows her way around the palace, but the Barmakids' reputation for court intrigues is second to none. Tales of their wisdom and their cunning are recited all over the lands of the faithful--even one of her father's singing-girls, originally from al-Andalus, had recognised their name.

And on top of that, he is a man, a man with authority and power, while a woman's lot is to be confined within the harem walls. Therefore, does it not follow on from that that he should take the lead, that it is he who should guide her upon this path of sin that they have now stepped upon?

"You also promised me patience, Jaffar," she says, "and I would not let my innocence turn to our ruin. Therefore, it is you who must arrange the time and the place." She reaches through the lattice with her fingertips. "Will you guide me with your hand, Jaffar?"

He kisses her fingers and nuzzles them with his cheek, his eyes soft and warm from desire. "I shall." He clasps her fingertips with his. "I promise to you that I shall find a way."

Chapter Text

That night, Yassamin masturbates for the first time in thirteen months. She sobs into her pillow as she rides her hands, the cats grumbling as she tosses there upon the mattress, giving herself her first orgasm since leaving Basra. And she cannot stop, no, not now; Jaffar's eyes and teeth flash in her mind as she imagines her fingers his, pushing into her, taking her, loving her like she has always wanted to be loved. Oh, but how she loves him; oh, but how she hates him! The stupid ideas she has had of him, stupid--thinking him only a lover of boys and men!

Yet... what if the old sodomite should take her like a boy? The very thought makes her turn onto her back and groan in renewed lust, her cunny pulsing against her fingers. That very week, she had asked Nasrin if it didn't hurt to take a man that way, and Nasrin had but laughed and taught her how to rinse herself for sodomy.

Practice, she had said. After a while, it will not hurt at all, especially if he goes slowly and uses oil. And believe you me, when I go down on all fours and offer my buttocks to my husband--oh, there is no greater pleasure in the world. Why, sometimes I have been so heated, so wet from the mere thought of it that he hasn't needed oil at all; but one dip into my cunny will have slickened him well enough. And when he sinks all of those nine inches into my guts I go blind from pleasure, Yassamin, blind.

And she has imagined it ever since, has imagined herself dressing like a boy just as Nasrin had done for Fadl, Jaffar mounting her the way Ahmad never would. With a desperate, pitiful howl, she hooks two wet fingers in her arse, undoing herself there and then. She screams into her pillows, sending three cats jumping off the bed at the force of her release. On and on she molests herself like the cruellest of Barmakid lords, thrusting inside of herself until she is too sore in both cunny and arse, panting on the bed, covered in sweat.

One of the cats glares at her for interrupting his sleep, yet the Jaffar-blue of his eyes but makes her toss and shiver in aftershocks. She closes her eyes, and the only image burning within her mind is that of Jaffar's face, grinning at her, grinning.

"I hate you," she groans into her pillow, mumbles, huffs, blowing sweaty hair from her face. "You bastard."

***

"I must see her," Jaffar moans and slumps theatrically onto his rug. "Even a glimpse of her. Otherwise I shall die!"

"You are being maudlin," Masrur says and confiscates his wine cup.

"I am a man in love. I am allowed to be maudlin," Jaffar barks from underneath his sleeve. Yet his squirming shakes the tree he is lying underneath, showering blossoms onto his face until he has to sit up again, coughing and spitting petals from his mouth. "Whose idea was this picnic anyway?"

"Yours," all his companions respond in unison.

For it is the rarest of days, a day off, something rarely afforded to a Grand Vizier. It had been Jaffar himself who had persuaded Masrur, Khurshid and Khalil to join him on an excursion to one of the great gardens beyond the city. So there they sit, surrounded by flowers and birdsong and all the glory and beauty of Spring herself, yet Jaffar is determined to remain a dark storm cloud hanging over it all.

"The wine is quite lovely," Khurshid interjects, already cheerfully tipsy himself.

"He's had enough, however," Masrur says and moves both bottle and cup well away from Jaffar's reach.

"Oh, to hell with the wine," Jaffar says and waves his hand dramatically. "It's a crystal I need. You wouldn't happen to have a spare one lying about anywhere, would you?" he turns to Khurshid.

Khurshid hiccups and takes Masrur by the shoulder. "Smashed his old one in a fit of pique. The pairi wasn't pleased."

Jaffar glowers at Khurshid. "Well? Answer me, you devious little fire-worshipper!"

Khurshid sips from his wine, smacks his lips and shakes his head. "I looked through all your coffers, master, offering her gem after gem, but the pairi would have none of it. She said they were all too small and that she would only accept the best. And that's when she left in a huff; she said she'd go and live in one of your mother's wells until we found a stone worthy of her."

"The capricious little--"

Masrur looks around himself. "Do not speak ill of djinn. Might I remind you we are outside human habitation and thus at the spirits' mercies?"

Jaffar groans once more and covers his eyes with his hand. "I must see Yassamin, I must."

It is only now that young Khalil speaks, offering Jaffar a bowl of incense to banish his sorrows with, gently wafting it underneath his face. "We see very little of her, master. Know that she has been as tortured by her emotions as you have been. One moment, she hums a song to herself and all but dances; but a moment later, she falls quiet, pale and seems ill. If it weren't for her maids, she would have forgotten how to brush her hair, how to even dress herself--there are whispers that she is going mad."

Jaffar pulls his hand from his face. "Has she been to Ahmad's bed?"

"Only upon his request, once or twice a week. And when she returns--it pains me to tell you this, master, but she is a sorry sight. She returns from him like a woman beaten, even if her body bears no marks of violence. Often, I have seen she has fixed her kohl, but it's still plain to see she has been crying. And on those nights, she forbids anyone from entering her quarters upon pain of death. Why, the cats see more of her than we do."

Jaffar tugs at the grass, murmuring quietly. "I send the cats to her each night, so that she might have some comfort at least."

"Oh, to be a cat!" Khurshid sighs. "To wander about freely in the harem, amidst silks and perfumes, brushing against all the pretty ladies' legs..." he groans happily and swoons upon his rug, cradling his cup to his chest.

"Well, isn't that your answer, right there?" Masrur says.

When nobody says anything, he rolls his eyes and looks at everyone as if they were asses. "Come, think of it. Surely you could catch a glimpse of her through a cat's eyes?"

Jaffar pauses and thinks of it, thinks.

"Or you could use mine, master?" Khalil says.

But now, the wickedest of leers spreads over Jaffar's face and he laughs, laughs deep in his throat, shaking his head. "Oh, no, Khalil; oh, no. You see, think I have a plan."

***

It is a plan that requires some effort, however. For in order to raise the energy he needs for such powerful magic, Jaffar has to spend ten days fasting, ten days without spilling a drop of his seed, ten days locked up in his underground chamber.

Naked, cross-legged, he sits within his magic circle, chanting through parched lips, his body burning with ascetic heat. And with its flames, he heats up his sap, draws his life force up his spine little by little, the energy saturating his every muscle until it blossoms white within his skull.

White, like jasmine, the jasmine that now embowers his heart; jasmine, Yassamin, white, all white. He stretches out his arms, his legs and then crouches upon the floor, his spine bending sweetly, his tail curling about his hind paws. He is burning, he can smell her heat, oh, he is hunting for his beloved; he swishes his tail, lies down upon the floor and purrs.

He opens his eyes, and they are Bahadur's.

***

"Mistress?"

Yassamin gasps and covers herself with her sheet. "I told you not to disturb me, Khalil!"

"I am but letting the pard in, mistress," Khalil says. "I shan't disturb you further. Good night."

When Bahadur, Jaffar trots through the room, Yassamin groans and tosses onto her side. Oh, but it's been a while since Jaffar has last seen a woman in this state of undress; he slows down his steps, enjoying the view. The way Yassamin's breasts roll underneath the thin white silk of her nightgown, the way her calves curve full and pale in the moonlight, the way her lovely little toes curl upon the sheets--oh, but she is beautiful.

Quietly, he jumps upon the bed and takes his place at the foot of it, nudging a smaller cat aside as he does. He rests his head upon his paws and adores Yassamin, adores her; he cannot help but let out a deep, satisfied churr.

"Quiet," Yassamin mumbles.

He but turns that churr into a rumbling purr, Bahadur's memories telling him his mistress loves the purr, loves to be lulled to sleep by it. Yet again, she tosses and turns: she lies down on her back, her legs falling open, now exposing her thighs. And it is then that he can smell her, smell what she had been doing before Khalil had interrupted her. He groans, but she groans at the same time; and now, she lifts her nightshirt and slips her hand between her legs. This is nothing new to Bahadur, but Jaffar's shock stops his purrs dead in his throat.

For now he can see her cunny, Yassamin's cunny, the beautiful plump mound of it so smooth it shines in the moonlight. Of course--she has been to the baths tonight, has been grooming herself, her fingertips dark from fresh henna as she now begins to stroke herself. The scent of the henna is not unpleasant, yet he is glad for the nose of an animal, easily able to take in but the scent of her arousal from underneath it. For he has not smelled, tasted a cunny in an age, and now his nostrils tremble with it. She is so rich, so sweet, so delicious he could weep; his mouth swirls full of saliva. Oh, but he cannot bear it; he has to move closer, closer. Disguising his movements as those of a cat stretching in his sleep, he turns so that his head is between her feet, now, so close to her pink and her white and her gleaming.

Who is it that you are thinking of, my sweet?

Yassamin's eyes fly open and she stops stroking herself. Yet it was not an embodied voice Jaffar had spoken in, only the voice of his mind; a soft caress against her ear. And from the way she now leans back against her pillows and resumes her play, he hopes--no, he is certain that it was he, Jaffar, that she'd been thinking of in the first place. A dream-Jaffar making love to her--to think of it, that she imagines being taken by him at night! Oh, but he has to close his eyes and purr his pleasure. What words has she thought of him whispering in her ears as he takes her? What sounds has she imagined him uttering as they play? He lets out another low churr, his cat-prick stirring against the fur of his belly.

But now, she ignores him, ignores him completely like one does a cat: her knees quake and she shivers, her breasts heaving underneath her shift.

"Jaffar," she moans and within the magic circle of his study, Jaffar's body trembles and moans in turn, his cock dripping upon its stone floor.

And within the magic circle of her bed, completely under her spell, the pard-he is drawn closer, closer; he has to nuzzle her thighs, has to do the unthinkable. He opens his mouth and quick, quick: he flicks his tongue into her cunny to steal himself a taste.

She yelps, screams in shock but he could die happy, now: her sugar dissolves upon his tongue and within his cheetah-chest, he groans, sobs, sighs in his ecstasy.

She, of course, stares at him angrily, starts to push at him with her feet to banish him from her bed.

"Off!"

But he curls his back and rises, stretches out to his full length and crawls on top of her. His front paws on either side of her shoulders, his prick dripping onto her belly, he stares at her and pants, listens, his tail curling high.

You are not Bahadur, he hears her thinking, and at that, he bursts into laughter, a high and birdlike noise in his throat. He gathers all of his power, all of his magic and reveals himself to her, not a cheetah but a man, a man: a Jaffar naked atop her, erect.

"Good evening, my sweet."

She lifts her hands to her mouth to suffocate a scream, but it's too late: he can't sustain the spell for a moment longer. Even the greatest of magicians cannot be present in two places at once for longer than a few moments, and as he lets go of the spell, he also has to let go of Bahadur.

The cheetah jumps off the bed, yet Jaffar remains in place, as but a ghost, as but spirit.

"Jaffar?"

She looks around herself, still panting, still so sweet, still so soft, still so wet. Oh, but she is a delicacy: yet she is so distressed, so frightened that no matter how much he would want to tease her, he would rather dissolve her fears.

I am here, beloved.

She pats at the bed, pulls her nightgown down to her ankles. "Where are you? Show yourself."

Oh, but the devil on Jaffar's shoulder is too persuasive, and he cannot help himself: he lifts her nightgown up once more and kisses both her thighs. I am right here, my love, right here.

"Oh--" her noise of pleasure soon turns into an infuriated groan. "You are a monster! You nearly scared me to death!"

How else could I have come to you, my love? he says, resting his ghost-self's head upon her thighs.

"So it is true, then? That you are a sorcerer?"

I have some skill, he purrs.

"Show yourself for a moment, if only so that I might slap you, you fiend!"

He chuckles and crawls on top of her, his invisible hips parting her thighs, his invisible hands upon her shoulders, his invisible lips brushing hers. Here I am, my love. You would not hurt me, now would you?

He did not realise being slapped as a ghost would hurt this much.

"You swine! You dog of the house of Barmak, you--"

Well, then. The time for games is over. He slides down her body and buries his face in her cunny, lapping at it, lapping at it the way a decent man like Ahmad never would. She howls into her hand, but that howl is shot through with delight, so he wraps his arms around her thighs and but continues. Why, she has probably never even heard of this particular pleasure before; girls from good families rarely have.

I promised you I would kiss you everywhere, did I not?

She struggles with herself from shock and surprise: however, it does not take many flicks of his tongue to undo whatever chastity she has left, to stop her from glancing around herself to see if anyone is watching them. Pleased with himself, Jaffar chuckles into her cunny as he watches her throw the last of her inhibitions aside, adoring the sheer speed with which he has made her fall into the arms of sin--considering said arms are his arms.

Well, my love? he purrs against her cunny and sucks her clitoris into his mouth.

"Please don't stop, oh, please, don't stop."

Exactly the answer I was looking for, my child.

And yet, to his great disappointment, in this ghost-body, he can barely feel her, barely taste her. His every sensation is numbed, as if he were making love to her from beyond the veil of sleep, or from beyond the torpor of opium. Horrified, he realises she must have hit him as hard as a warrior for her blow to have stung him so, so he is grateful for small mercies. Yet, at the same time, he curses his state. For now, he can taste sweetness, but it's not nearly as strong as what he had been able to taste through Bahadur's tongue: as he had sobbed from joy, then, he now sobs from frustration, his body curling up on the floor of his chamber.

Yet, what does it matter, if she is now driven mad from pleasure through his touch? His Yassamin, his Yassamin now caressing his ghost-head with her hands, tossing upon the sheets; his Yassamin dripping upon his ghost-tongue, her clitoris pulsing in his ghost-mouth like the littlest of pricks. Oh, but this is beautiful, a newfound joy now that he knows his own desire cannot be completely sated; perhaps the Almighty had meant for this to happen exactly so as to make him perform unselfishly, thinking only of her pleasure. For now that he is not blinded by his own, he can focus on but observing her, on perfecting his caresses, drinking in her ecstasy.

Has he ever given you release? he asks her, demands her.

"No," she moans, her voice leaden from shame even as she squeezes her breasts, pinches them, spreading her legs wider.

Would you like me to? and at that, he has to dip into her mind, to listen.

My first man, my first man, the first man to truly take me, claim me, the first one to love me as I love him: the first time I am surrendering myself to a man I love, out of my own free will. Oh, but please, her mind screams, so loud it makes his body tremble as the waves of her emotion crash through his being. "Please, please," she moans through her lips, "please, Jaffar, please."

And in his chamber, he sighs, his eyes closed in joy, his mouth opening and closing as it sucks upon her flesh. To so possess her, to so love her, to give her this--Let me, my sweet beloved, let me.

And softly, gently he slides two ghostly fingers inside of her sex and feels for her, feels for that soft spot at the front wall of her cunny, murmuring to her with love. Please, let me feel it, Yassamin; please.

And she howls, groans, now digging her nails into his scalp so that he can truly feel them, yet her groan is that of despair. "I don't know how, Jaffar; I'm so sorry, I don't know how."

But you do, my love; you do, he murmurs. For is then that he takes his fingers out and slides them lower, lower, slipping them inside her arse, just as she has always done. And all he can now hear is her screaming, all he can now see is how her anus gapes around his invisible touch, the little ring of muscle pulsing around his fingers as if to suck them in. Quickly, he takes her clitoris with his mouth again and sucks upon her, and there, there: he can feel her muscles contracting around his hand, her hips pushing against his mouth, her cunny pulsing wet against his chin. She is lost, moaning low in her throat like an animal, like a madwoman, howling in disbelief as she is undone.

And she keeps twisting, howling, her thoughts so loud he can hear them: You are not real, you are not real, you are not real because you are too perfect, oh, Merciful Lord, I am dreaming, I am dreaming. And then, that thought is followed by shame and she forces herself into silence, biting her lip, whimpering as she trembles her last upon his hand.

But I am real, my sweet beloved, I am real, he whispers and gathers her into his arms, kisses her with his lips still wet from her love, uses the last of his magic to embrace her so tight she is lifted off the bed.

She returns his embrace, clutches madly around this man she cannot see, whispering "I love you, I love you, I love you," her hair wet from sweat as she presses her face against his chest.

And I love you so much, my sweet Yassamin; so much--

But it is then that his eyes snap open and he is alone in his chamber once more, naked upon its cold stone floor.

He brushes his fingers through the sperm now drying upon his belly, and bursts into tears.

Chapter Text

Yassamin is in love, her heart about to burst because she cannot keep silent about it, but who could she tell? She has been taken by a man invisible, a lover who had been and had not been there. A man not her husband, a lover, a lover. Therefore, whether he had been a ghost or a man of flesh and blood, telling anyone would mean risking her life. Durra is but a child, Nasrin a gossiping tart. And Ettabeh--oh, she is frightened of Ettabeh, but surely she would understand, and could keep a secret if it concerned the happiness of her own son?

No. She dares not. Thus, she sits in her garden pavilion and covers her face with her hands, sighing. The very idea of sleeping with Ahmad revolts her, now; it makes her sick in her throat. But she has not had a choice: she has lain underneath him, secretly praying that he would be sated quickly, praying that he would not get her with child. For it is only Jaffar that she wants, now, only Jaffar whose children she wants to bear, only Jaffar she wants to share her life with. She has been married to the wrong man, when the right one had been so close, right next to her, had even wooed her and she had not realised it until it had been too late. Whatever sins has she committed to have God punish her so?

It's the most beautiful of spring days, the fountains bubbling, the birds singing, yet she curls up upon her rug and despairs.

***

In the mornings, she wakes up with Bahadur by her side: still groggy from sleep, she hugs him close and kisses his nose.

"Are you there, beloved? I don't know if you can hear me, but I must say it: please grant me your sight, beloved; and if not your sight, your touch."

Bahadur lifts his head, flicks his ears and lets out a rising noise, one that sounds like a question. Yet, his eyes, however intelligent, however loving, remain those of a cat. It's morning and she is not awake enough to control her emotions, knows she should not have asked this, but now it's too late and she finds herself weeping.

Bahadur but churrs in sympathy and lays his paw over her hand, lapping at her tears with his rough tongue.

"I apologise," she sighs and kisses Bahadur's forehead. "You are not a man, and I have insulted your cat nature. Yet I love you, too, Bahadur; you are a prince among cats."

"Mistress, who is it that you're talking to?" Khalil asks from the doorway as he enters with her morning tea.

"I am but training my pard, Khalil," she murmurs, quickly wiping her eyes. "You know how it is; loving words are the key to taming a wild beast's heart."

Khalil sets down his tray and smiles at her mischievously. "Then it might please you to learn, mistress, that another beast of his kind awaits you at the cat house tonight."

She starts, glances quickly around herself. The boy knows, then; he must have guessed she and Jaffar had not met to talk politics. "If you say anything about this to anyone--"

Khalil smirks, takes his hand to his heart and bows deeply. "I would not dream of telling anyone, mistress."

"There is nothing inappropriate between us," she hisses, still looking around herself, glaring even at the cats. If Jaffar can take upon himself the form of a cheetah, how can she be sure the cats aren't spying on her right now, acting as the eyes and ears of her enemies?

"He succeeded, then," Khalil grins, all too knowingly. She makes to smack him, but he takes a step back, laughing. "I am but happy for you, mistress. And the master."

"Any more insolence and I will have you trussed up and thrown into the Tigris, you little fiend," she fumes.

Yet if Khalil knows everything, she has no choice but to trust him. She takes him by the wrist and yanks him down to sit beside herself. "Tell me."

"Two hours before sundown, as before. I shan't tell a soul."

She looks at him suspiciously. "How much do you want for not telling a rock, a gust of wind, even a cat?"

Khalil looks at his shalwars and picks at their fabric. "Well, these are a little worn at the knees, mistress--you yourself know how fine the silk of Basra is."

The little cur. "You'll get a hundred silver dirhams, nothing more."

Khalil bows. "Most gracious, mistress. As for tonight, the cheetah told me nothing more."

She turns to her tea and starts to spoon sugar into it mechanically, refusing to look at the boy. "That's more than enough, Khalil. You're dismissed."

When she finally stops stirring and lifts the glass to her lips, the tea has gone cold.

***

If she thought her heart had been pounding the last time she visited the cat house, now she can't even hear her own footsteps for its drumbeat. She is more careful this time, arriving at the lattice in Khalil's clothes, wincing as she kneels upon the rough, cracked floor--the boy had been right; the suit is a little worn at the knees.

She reaches through the lattice and parts the rosebushes. "Jaffar?"

"Well, well, well," he purrs, looking at her up and down. "You look more fetching in his clothes than he does. See, he failed to stir my desire, but the thought of you as a page..." he hisses in lascivious delight.

She flushes, knowing exactly what he is thinking of. "Stop it." She casts down her eyes, picking at the chipping paint on the wall. "It was you who came to me that night, was it not? As Bahadur?"

He reaches through the lattice and brushes her leg, the worn silk at her knee. "Was there ever any doubt in your mind?"

She laughs, has to look at him. "No. But it still seems as if a dream."

"I did not leave you by choice," he says, apologetic. "It's very difficult even for a skilled magician to accomplish such feats; I would have embraced you all night, had my magic not run out. If it were easier, I would have visited you every night; know that."

"So it is true, then," she says. "Instead of letting his soul rest in God's bosom when sleeping, the way all good believers do, Jaffar the Barmakid sends his soul out into the night to perform wicked deeds."

"You say 'wicked,' my lady, and yet you smile." And he is smiling, too, a smile shameless, sweet, glad.

She takes his fingertips in her hand. "Perhaps I am wicked, too."

He shakes his head and laughs. "Then I shall pray for the both of us. But, my lady, before we discuss love, I have to warn you."

She stiffens. "Has someone found out?"

"No. Not to my knowledge, at least. It's something concerning your husband, I am afraid. Remember what you said to me last time, of wishing him dead?"

A flash of nausea goes through her as she thinks of the implications. "Forget what I said in the heat of passion. About assassination, that is." She covers her face with her other hand. "I would not have Ahmad's blood on our hands."

He looks at her for a long while, then kisses her fingertips. "We needn't do a thing, my child. I suppose I might as well tell you about Musa, now."

"So there will be a war?"

"It seems inevitable. I have heard he is on his way from Daylam with his troops. However, Fadl and I are amassing armies to stop him. His heathens may be good with their battle-axes, but we outnumber them three to one."

"And should Ahmad fall in battle?" the very thought of it fills her with a mixture of sickness and elation. A clumsy sixteen-year old boy in the saddle--oh, he would not stand a chance.

Jaffar groans. "And if he shouldn't--do you know, I think Fadl would poison Ahmad himself. He is sick of waiting; all he needs is an excuse. And Ahmad suspects him already--you have heard of how Fadl has moved fifty thousand of his guards to Baghdad this past week, yes? Even if Ahmad knows Musa is approaching, he still suspects Fadl is planning a coup."

She lets go and looks at the ground, her entire body grown cold, now. "And what would happen to us?" A thousand questions flood her mind. What if it should be Jaffar who falls? What if Fadl should claim her for himself? What if Musa should emerge victorious? But she is sure Jaffar has thought of all of these things already.

"I told you," he murmurs, resting his forehead against the lattice. "I shall find a way."

She cannot hold back her tears, now. "If all of Baghdad were in flames, would you still say that?"

He groans. "If I have to change myself into a horse and speed you out of the city myself, I promise I will."

"You had better do it right now, son of Yahya, because I will not stay here for a moment longer."

"Listen," he says, pulling his hand out, glancing around himself warily. "My mother takes a holiday this time of the year. When she asks you to join her entourage, accept, and she will take you out of Baghdad. She's heading for the east, where our allies are, including your brother-in-law. You will be safe there."

But how would she know what to answer to something like this? She had come here to speak of love, to plot ways in which she and Jaffar could be together, and as if the court wasn't awful enough, now the entire world is conspiring against their happiness. Would God Himself separate them after He had given them a glimpse of hope, of happiness? Now, she breaks down in tears, her stomach cramping, suddenly finding herself weeping so violently that she cannot speak.

Jaffar presses himself against the lattice, his voice cracking with sympathy, with despair. "Oh, my poor Yassamin, my sweet Yassamin--"

And for but a moment, the lattice parts, the rosebushes part, and he holds her in his arms.

She weeps, howls against his chest, his velvets. "I will never let you go now, never, ever," she moans. "Take me with you, Jaffar. If you are to die, I would die beside you, I--"

He is shaking from his grief, shaking as he holds up his hand, struggling to maintain the spell that allows them to touch. "I cannot allow that," he says through gritted teeth; "I love you too much. Oh, Yassamin--"

And his kiss is full of the salt of blood and tears, the warmth of his robes wrapping around her like the night, and she wishes she could die right here, right now. "But what if this should be the last moment of happiness we will be allowed in this world?" she sobs.

He is shaking more violently, now, lacing his free hand with hers, his eyes flowing with tears. "Then I shall martyr myself to find you in the next, my love; I swear it, I swear."

Yet at that very moment he groans, howls, curls up in pain and as she lets go of him, the lattice and the rosebushes separate them once more.

"I am so sorry," he pants, crouching on all fours upon the ground. "My magic, it's not enough--"

"No, Jaffar," she says, reaching through the lattice, taking his sweating hand in hers and squeezing it. "It is I who has not had enough faith. For is God not merciful?" she murmurs. "Would He keep us apart forever?"

Jaffar kisses her palm, kisses it a dozen times. "And is one's love true if one isn't ready to die for it?"

She laughs and caresses his lips, wistful. "I would love you in this world yet, son of Yahya."

"Then listen closely, my love," he says, gazing at her. "There is a great caravanserai two days from Isfahan. When you and Ettabeh reach it, you are to remain there and await my word."

She wipes her eyes. "What's the place called?"

"The Queen of Happiness," he grins, sniffing back tears.

She cannot help but burst into laughter, a laughter hysterical and wet from tears, gazing at the soot-darkened ceiling.

Chapter Text

***

Isfahan

***

They might as well have named the caravanserai The Queen of Sorrow. For what Yassamin had thought to be an exile of but a few weeks, a few months at most has now lasted for over a year: for fourteen months, she and Ettabeh have lain low here while Baghdad remains under siege.

For the first three months, she had been anxious to hear all the news, all the gossip from passing traders and exiles. Yet on the fourth, she had lost heart, too horrified by their stories of the beautiful, fresh blossom that had been Baghdad blackened by fire and smoke. Of women going about veilless, weeping for their husbands and sons; barbarians roaming the streets, trampling old men and children underneath their horses' hooves.

And each time new travellers arrive, they say it should soon be over. That now that Mohammad, son of Yahya, and his legendary general, Tahir, have arrived from Samarkand, Musa the usurper will soon be driven out. Brother will slay brother, no doubt about it, for aren't Musa and his barbarians but ignorant heathens? And Ahmad the grandson of Harun the Rightly Guided, the viceregent of God upon earth?

That had been five months ago.

And her days and her nights are filled with fear, with horror; not only for Jaffar or for the women of the royal harem, but also for Latifa and her children all alone in Samarkand. She wishes Latifa knew she were here, so she could at least send letters, but no: she and Ettabeh are here under assumed names, masquerading as a wealthy lady and her granddaughter. The innkeepers and shopkeepers presume they are freedwomen, former courtesans and Ettabeh allows them that, relishes her role and tells them filthy stories long into the night.

Yet when everyone else has retired for the night, Ettabeh drops the mask of the bawd and ascends the stairs to Yassamin's apartments, knowing Yassamin has trouble sleeping. She sits upon Yassamin's bed and takes her by the hand.

"If there is anything I can do to lighten your heart, my child, tell me."

Yassamin kisses Ettabeh's hand, too tired to even weep. "That's what your son always said to me," she whispers. For Ettabeh knows, had always known of Jaffar's love for her; she had told her so on their first night here. "Mother, do you know of any magics, of sorceries? If you do, then bring Jaffar here, please; bring him here."

"Know that I would give my own life to save his," Ettabeh murmurs, gazing at the moon shining through the window. "Among my sons, he is the wisest, the worthiest to inherit the throne," she says. "Yet a fool when it comes to love--no, I am not insulting you, my child! Lie down!" she laughs a little wistfully. "I but mean that he becomes foolhardy, takes too many risks when he is in love; for it is a poet's heart that beats in his chest, not that of a statesman."

"Don't think I haven't questioned my love for him for that very reason," Yassamin murmurs. "I wish I could hate him."

Ettabeh laughs and pats her hand. "It's hard to hate him, even when he is being a fool."

"True." And even if it makes her a sinner, she prefers a caravanserai bed to Ahmad's. She might sleep alone here, but at least that's better than having to endure Ahmad's sloppy kisses, his clumsy caresses, the pain he gives her every time he takes her--and she would rather not think about Ahmad, now.

"Come, Mother. Let us pray."

And in prayer, in the familiar recitations and prostrations, Yassamin can forget herself. Never has she been able to concentrate on prayer so well as she has done here, emptying her mind the way a mystic would, focusing herself on God, letting Him fill her with His mercy in turn. She thanks Him for what He has given her, even if she is an adulteress, for with each passing day she grows more certain that it is Jaffar who is her true husband, the one God had meant for her to marry in the first place. It is but men who have set them apart, not God; for now she is certain that in Heaven, before their birth, she and Jaffar had been but two halves of the one soul. And nothing, but nothing can stop such lovers from being reunited once more.

And thus, when she finishes her prayers and looks at Ettabeh, her eyes are full of tears, this time of hope.

"Good night, my child," Ettabeh says as she kisses Yassamin's forehead. "God keep you and shelter you."

"Good night, Mother," Yassamin says and kisses her cheek. "God keep you and shelter you."

And even now, there are cats upon her bed, warm and purring cats curling up next to her as she climbs in. They might be flea-ridden, bony creatures living on scraps instead of the well-groomed, well-fed cats of the palace; yet to her, this makes no difference. They remind her of mercy, they remind her of love; they remind her of Jaffar. And as she gathers one rumbling, skinny one under her arm, that's all that matters.

"God keep you and shelter you, beloved Jaffar," she murmurs as she falls asleep.

***

Baghdad

***

"Tahir!"

But before Jaffar can even add "To your left; watch out!" he is showered in blood as Tahir cuts his assailant's head off in one stroke.

The Dailamite's body collapses upon the ground and Tahir rides up to Jaffar. "What news of Fadl?"

"The last I saw of him, he was fighting back ten barbarians one-handed," Jaffar says as he reins in his horse and wipes blood from his face with his handkerchief. "With a flask of wine in his other hand."

"And our little master the Caliph?"

With a groan, Jaffar tosses his ruined handkerchief over the severed head. "In the palace, where else? Probably drinking himself." He looks around, and the streets around them seem empty: the entire quarter seems to be abandoned, and for once, there is no smoke, no fire in sight. "How many are there left?"

"Us or them?"

"The Dailamites."

"Some eight hundred to the south, some three hundred to the west. Thirty thousand of us. They can't last for long, now."

"Be that as it may, I would not see more men--" Jaffar almost says "blinded," but knows not to mention the word within earshot of Tahir the One-Eyed, having seen the disastrous consequences himself. "I would not see more men maimed," he murmurs instead. For they had not counted on the Dailamites' slingshots: they had turned out to be experts at aiming for the eyes, and had taken down vast numbers of the Abbasid cavalry, even some of Fadl's Turkish archers. "South, did you say? How far?"

Tahir turns his horse around and points. "Their camp is on the southern bank of the Bazzazin canal; they'll try to cross over to Waddah tomorrow and storm the Basra gate. The last of the bookstore-keepers were packing up yesterday."

And that horrifies Jaffar more than the idea of the barbarians at the palace gates does. To think of Waddah, the home of a hundred bookshops, falling into the hands of illiterate heathens--no, no. Even if Musa's troops are soon to be crushed, Jaffar would rather die than let that happen. One book is worth the life of a thousand men, as far as he is concerned. "I will think of something. Join me in my quarters tonight?"

"I would, Barmakid," Tahir laughs and shakes his head, "but that would show poor morale. I never leave my men. If you wish to see me, you know where my tent is."

Jaffar bows. "Of course. Forgive me for my insult, brother of lions. I am not as noble a warrior as you."

Tahir flashes him a grin from behind his bushy black beard, his single eye glinting with mirth. "For a bunch of glorified accountants, you Barmakids are greater warriors than I was led to expect," he says and pats Jaffar on the shoulder. "I will see you tonight."

***

After sunset prayers, Jaffar joins Tahir in his tent. He feels like a fool for having washed, having perfumed himself, having donned his court robes: Tahir himself lies upon his bed of cushions in a full suit of mail with his sword tucked into his belt, his breastplate and bazubands not far away.

"Pray, take a seat," Tahir offers. "I am afraid I do not keep wine or singing-girls here; they are too much of a distraction. But I do hope the fish is to your liking; it's the best we could manage under the circumstances."

Jaffar bows deeply and sits opposite Tahir. "Your hospitality itself is a blessing beyond measure, my lord. It glorifies your guest in turn."

Tahir waves his hand dismissively. "Enough with the court flourishes. Come; what did you want to see me for?"

"May I be frank, my lord?"

"You had better be, son of Yahya."

"It has come to my knowledge that you plundered one of Musa's camps last night, and his very treasury at that."

"That is true," Tahir says and nods, a suspicious look in his eye.

"And that among my brother's possessions was found a large red crystal, as large as a man's head."

Tahir looks at him, astounded. "Greed, Jaffar; at this hour? We are days from victory, and already you would start dividing the spoils?"

"No, no, no, no." Jaffar raises his hand. "You misunderstand me, my lord. For it is not greed that drives me. It is only that I would use that crystal for a very specific purpose, one that could win us the war in but a day, free Baghdad from her torment. Would you allow me to explain?"

Tahir leans back and regards him, his lip twitching as if he is barely holding back a sneer. "I will hear you out, Barmakid. Even if you sound like a madman."

Jaffar but smiles wryly. "Perhaps I am one, for I speak of magic."

***

Jaffar sits in his underground chamber, placing the crystal reverently onto a small pedestal. He recites a prayer, takes out a flask and pours a few drops of water from his mother's well onto the crystal.

"Come out, my sweet pairi," he says, putting on a pleasant, seductive voice. "Come see the new home I have acquired for you. For is this truly not a palace worthy of your beauty, O princess among djinn?"

The faint outline of a girl's face appears in the crystal, but as soon as she has entered it, the pairi sneezes. "You could have wiped the dust off it first, pard-man," she coughs and sniffles.

Jaffar laughs and polishes the crystal with his sleeve. "Come. How do you like it?"

The pairi looks around and sniffs. "I've had bigger. Jamshid gave me one three times the size of this one, but..." she sighs. "I suppose it'll do. You men are such greedy creatures, breaking these things into smaller pieces so that you might sell them for profit, not caring for those of us who need room to stretch our legs!"

Jaffar raises an eyebrow. "I am not here to discuss the housing market, little lady."

"Then I take it that you haven't captured your little gazelle yet?" she tuts. "You are slipping, my tomcat; your limbs grow weak."

"Silence," Jaffar snaps. "In case you haven't heard, we are at war. I need you to show me Musa's camp, show me where he is sleeping."

"I require advance payment," she huffs. "I am not at the height of my powers; living in a well does that to a girl. I have not supped upon a man since..." she makes to count with her fingers.

Jaffar groans and rolls his eyes. "I only need the vision for a few moments."

"And I am starving." A transparent, red, elegant hand reaches from the crystal and rests itself upon Jaffar's groin. "Besides, few men produce an elixir as potent as yours, Barmakid. With just a few drops, I could show you the entire world."

Jaffar shivers, grits his teeth as the pairi caresses him through his robes, knowing exactly where to touch him from old experience.

"Prove it."

"Oh, I shall," she says as she reaches into his silks. "Would this do?"

And the moment she curls her hand around his prick, she shows him Yassamin. Yassamin, Yassamin, sleeping in the noonday heat, sprawled upon her caravanserai bed in but the thinnest of nightgowns. The very sight of her hips, her buttocks underneath the silk makes him moan, makes his prick stiffen in the pairi's hand.

"Oh, God."

The pairi clicks her tongue, with not a little jealousy. "Oh, but you are an easy man to manipulate, son of Yahya!" she giggles. "One sight of that flat arse and you are on your knees. Would you like to see a little more?"

Jaffar squeezes the cushions with his hands, straining, his hips rocking into the pairi's touch. Past the red hand rolling itself over the swelling head of his cock, he sees Yassamin tossing and turning in her sleep.

"Please," he gasps. "Please."

"Very well."

And astonished, Jaffar watches as Yassamin turns onto her left side, as if pushed by an invisible hand: her right leg lifts until her thigh nearly touches her chest. And there, the nightgown lifted aside, the pairi's invisible fingers spreading her buttocks, he can see Yassamin's cunny, Yassamin's arse. He cries out in hopeless lust, a pulse of sap escaping his cock, splashing upon the crystal.

"Yassamin--"

"Mmm," the pairi giggles, making a little wet, licking sound as the crystal swallows the drops of Jaffar's arousal. Mercilessly, she kneads at Yassamin's buttocks, and now, a wet stripe spreads upon Yassamin's cunny, followed by another. "She is quite sweet," the pairi murmurs, again with that little licking sound. "I am starting to understand what it is that you see in her, my cat of cats."

"Get your hands off her!"

"Oh, but as you can see, it's not my hand I am using on that," the pairi murmurs, and now the lips of Yassamin's cunny part, slipping and sliding as if from the touch of a tongue, Yassamin moaning in her sleep. "It really is the prettiest of cunnies, just as you have the prettiest of pricks," the pairi purrs, never ceasing in her stroking of Jaffar. "You two are a fine match."

"You little fiend! Cease this torment at once! I will give you anything you want, please--"

The pairi ignores him and gives Yassamin's sex another long lick, her entire cunny flushed and wet; now, that wetness spreads onto Yassamin's arse, the little bud of muscle dipping underneath the pairi's invisible tongue. "This is what you would do to her, is it not, Barmakid?"

"Yes, Merciful God, yes--"

"Then I shall tell her."

And horrified, Jaffar listens to his own voice floating through the pairi's lips, sees Yassamin's ear dipping from her invisible kiss. "I would lick you like this, my sweet; lick you from the top of your little pink slit to this little pink bud right here, just like this, just like this," his voice croons in her ear.

Yassamin convulses, then moans, convulses again: in but moments, she is wide awake, looking around herself. She takes in her tousled hair, her nightgown around her hips, and with a gasp, she covers her mouth with her hands. "Jaffar?"

And then, the vision fades. "That's all I have energy for now, I am afraid," the pairi says, licking her lips.

"I am going to smash this crystal and banish you into the four winds, you little--"

"But you won't," the pairi croons, and as she takes her invisible mouth to Jaffar's cock, still smelling of Yassamin--yes, he can swear she still smells of Yassamin, Yassamin's cunny, oh, God, oh, God--

"Yassamin!" he cries out, squeezing his thighs, white-knuckled as he spends himself in the pairi's mouth, splashing his seed all over the crystal. "Yassamin," he groans still as the red hand milks him until his prick is raw, until the very last drop of his seed is swallowed by the crystal.

"Well done," the pairi croons, her voice stronger and less girl-like, now, more like that of a grown woman. She sighs happily, smacking her lips once more. "That was quite something. You must have been celibate for a while." She pauses, taking a finger to her lips. "Or do you think it's just because I have been fasting, and that any meal now feels like a banquet?"

Jaffar tucks himself back into his robes. "I have been abstaining, as a matter of fact. It is you who are lacking in manners, my girl. You do not insult a man after you've just stolen his semen."

"Oh, it was lovely semen, but enough of that," she says and waves her hand dismissively. "What was it that you wanted to see?"

"My little brother, Musa."

And immediately, she shows him the young man in his tent, also taking in his noonday rest. He has taken his armour off entirely, yet he is embracing his sword, clutching it over his chest. But for a faint battle-scar on his cheek, he has barely changed from the days when Jaffar had known him as a youth. He is only in his twenties now, having been born of a Dailamite slave girl instead of Ettabeh, yet had been loved well by his father and his brothers.

Yet his greed had made him break his vows of kinship, had made him escape to the lands of the pagans and declare himself king. However, while Tahir and Ahmad consider this war a holy one, having heard rumours Musa has converted to the worship of fire, Jaffar could not care less for the man's religion. All he cares about is Baghdad, the city his grandfather, his father and his sons--all except for Musa--had built with their own hands. Even more than its people, Jaffar cares for the libraries, the hospitals, the universities his family have graced it with.

And now, this one fool would bring it all to ruin--no, no; he cannot allow that. For he hates Musa for his ignorance, his barbarism almost as much as he hates Ahmad for his. Yet Ahmad is but the Barmakids' lapdog, and here lies their true enemy, a man more beast than human.

Or at least this is what Jaffar tells himself, forcing himself to think only of Musa's flaws instead of the good times they had shared. Of going to the races with Musa, to see the horses they had raised together winning time after time. Of how he had given Musa his first sword and trained him as if he were his own son, until he had become a master of the art. Of how, when Abbasa had been killed, Musa had dragged him to the taverns and made him drink until he had passed out--

No. Musa is an enemy of his family, an enemy of Ahmad's, and therefore an enemy of Yassamin, of Jaffar's own happiness. He thinks of the good men this dog has killed, of the good women he has violated, of the children whose blood still stains his sword. He thinks of Waddah on fire, of tens of thousands of books, the knowledge of hundreds of generations vanishing into the air as smoke and ash--

He slams his fist into the cushions, snarling through gritted teeth. "No, Musa. I would not call you 'brother.'"

***

A guard looks into Musa's tent, astounded to find it empty. "Master?"

***

And so, that afternoon, Musa, son of Yahya finds himself kneeling in Tahir's tent without armour, without weapons, the swords of four men pointing at his throat.

"This is sorcery!" he cries.

"Aye," Fadl laughs. "If I did not see it with my own eyes, I would not believe it either."

Tahir nicks Musa under the jaw. "There. I merely wanted to see if you were flesh and blood. I am satisfied."

Musa refuses to look at them, staring at the ground instead. "I suppose it would be useless to plead for mercy, for I know you would give me none. Would you at least allow me to say my last prayers?"

Mohammad forces Musa's chin up with the tip of his sword. "Who would you address your prayers to, you heathen dog?" he scoffs. "To Mithra?"

"He is the true unbeliever among you," Musa spits and glares at Jaffar. "It was with Satan's help that he brought me here. One moment, I was sleeping in my bed; now, I find myself here. It is the work of the Devil himself!"

Jaffar shakes his head. "I am afraid you are mistaken. It was my djinni that carried you here, and God alone decides whom the spirits obey. Yet, do not for a moment think that I would hesitate to damn my soul, if only to take you down to Hell with me."

Musa laughs hysterically, with tears in his eyes. "Come, then. Which one of my brothers shall it be that cuts off my head? Which one of you shall bear my blood on his hands until Judgement Day?" He glances at Tahir. "Or is this why you brought the cyclops? To spare yourselves the guilt?"

It is at that that Tahir spits in his face, spits once, twice, thrice. He does not say a word, but takes three steps back and then stands at the back of the tent, leaning on his sword.

Jaffar, Mohammad and Fadl look at one another as Musa wipes the spit from his face, still laughing.

"Let me do it," Mohammad says. "I came all this way."

"No, no, no, no. I am the oldest," Fadl replies. "Unless you want to do the honours, Jaffar?"

Musa groans. "Why don't you all just draw lots?"

Mohammad kicks him into the ground and stamps his foot on his chest, then raises his sword. "Any last requests?"

"Yes!" Musa hisses, glaring up at Mohammad with a distant glaze in his eyes. "That last prayer."

Fadl raises his hand. "Let him."

Musa laughs. "By Ahriman, I curse the entire Barmakid race. May he murder your sons, rape your women, drown your--"

But now, it is Jaffar who springs into movement. It is as if something else is moving his limbs; perhaps it is God, perhaps it is Satan, perhaps it is Ahriman, he does not know. For now, his very soul seems to detach itself from his body, so that he is observing himself from afar: before Musa has finished his curse, Jaffar has put his sword through his throat. And as Jaffar's sword is but a thin sabre, little more than a souvenir from India, his hands not used to severing men's heads, it takes a while for him to murder his brother. His brother, yet a monster, a monster: Musa's blood sprays his robes and those of his brothers, sprays his face as he keeps hacking, sawing, hacking. I am doing this for you, Yassamin. I am doing this for your honour, for he would have taken it; please, oh, Merciful God, forgive me, forgive me.

He keeps on hacking until his brothers pull him away, pull him to sit outside the tent as they drag out Musa's corpse, as Mohammad takes the slain man's head and holds it up high for all to see.

"Behold the head of a traitor!" Mohammad cries. "The head of one who would raise his sword against the Abbasids, the descendants of the Prophet's family! The head of an apostate, unbeliever; one who would defy Almighty God!" He tosses the head upon the ground and kicks it to join Musa's corpse.

And it is Fadl who cries out, with the cruellest, the most horrible of looks upon his face: "God is great! Long live Ahmad, Commander of the Faithful!"

And as the troops greet him with cheers, as all of Baghdad erupts in joy, Tahir emerges from the tent. He walks up to the corpse and calmly, without flinching, he pisses upon Musa's severed head.

The crowd falls silent; the sons of Yahya look at each other in horror, but dare not say a word as Tahir walks back into his tent.

Somewhere in the distance, someone retches.

Jaffar slumps forwards, his eyes unseeing, his stomach cold from terror. "God knows best," he murmurs, the words dead upon his lips; "God knows best."

Chapter Text

***

Isfahan

***

"The traitor Musa is dead! The traitor Musa is dead! Baghdad is free! Ahmad, son of Amin reigns supreme! God is great! God is great! God is great!"

Ettabeh takes the messenger by the sleeve. "Is it true? Upon your undying soul, tell me the truth!"

"It is true, my lady," the messenger says, wiping sweat from his brow. "Tavern-keeper! Meat, bread and water, for I must hurry to Isfahan with the news."

"It's on the house," the tavern-keeper says, gesturing for his men to serve the messenger. "Here, the best seats in the house."

"No, seat him next to us," Ettabeh says, making room on the platform she and Yassamin are sitting upon. "We would hear what happened. And besides, these are the best seats in the house," she grins, fluffing up a cushion for the man.

"Who slew him?" Yassamin asks. "Who slew Musa?"

The tavern-keeper kneels beside them, wiping his hands on his apron so as not to stain the cushions. "Yes. Tell us who? Fadl, I expect?"

It is then that the servants bring the messenger his food and water. He takes a long sip straight from the pitcher, swallowing half a dozen times to slake his thirst before he answers. "You won't believe it," he laughs, wiping his mouth.

"Tell us!" Ettabeh says, as excited as a young girl.

The messenger leans forwards, waits until others gather within earshot--meaning the entire tavern.

"Jaffar, son of Yahya." He nods at the people's astonished gasps, disbelieving murmurs. "Yes, the old civil servant, the old libertine, the one they said was only good with his pen and his prick. But you know what they say: lions sheathe their claws until they are roused, and he has proven himself a lion indeed."

Yassamin's vision goes white and she braces herself upon her hands. "How?" she murmurs. Jaffar, her Jaffar, now a hero--she takes the cup of wine Ettabeh is now holding out to her. "How did it happen?"

But she can barely hear the messenger as he relates the details; she cannot even see in front of herself.

Later, Ettabeh has to help Yassamin up the stairs to her room; she is still so light-headed she is staggering.

"This calls for a celebration," Ettabeh says, her cheeks flushed, her eyes glittering from pride. "The best of my sons, the liberator of Baghdad, the Caliph's greatest champion." She turns to the slave girl waiting at the door. "The best wine you can find!"

Yassamin braids the tassels of her jacket, then unbraids them. "Never could I have believed it," she murmurs as they are served. "Never."

Ettabeh shoos the girl away and empties half the wine-bowl in one sip. "Neither could I, and I should know. I bore him half a century ago, and now he decides to prove himself a hero?" She sips from the cup again and quirks her eyebrow. "They must have threatened to set the House of Wisdom on fire."

"Probably," Yassamin laughs nervously as Ettabeh fills the cup and hands it to her. Yet her hands shake so much she spills a little on her shalwars.

Ettabeh regards her for a long while. "I was jesting, my child. It cannot be anything except the love he feels for you; surely you know that. He protected Baghdad and protected Ahmad not only because he had to, but because he wanted you to be able to return safely; he wanted you to be happy."

Of course, that's exactly what Yassamin has been thinking of, ever since they'd left Baghdad: Jaffar had said as much himself. She almost snaps at the old woman, almost tells her not to repeat the obvious, but--

"Oh, Mother." She takes a long sip of the wine and yet her hands shake so much that she stains her chin, now. "I can only hope he doesn't think bloodshed is the way to my heart."

Ettabeh takes the cup from Yassamin and mops her chin with her handkerchief as if Yassamin were a child. "Oh, no, my darling. That sounds more like something Fadl would do. After all, he looks to impress other men."

"Perhaps they are mistaken and it was indeed Fadl who slew Musa? Or perhaps it was Mohammad?"

"Whoever it was, I am the mother of a hero," Ettabeh laughs and hugs Yassamin. "Soon you will be able to ask them yourself. Yet let us wait for Jaffar's word; I am sure the boys will want to tidy Baghdad up a little before our return."

***

All week, Ahmad has been hosting grand victory celebrations, including ones in Jaffar's honour, but Jaffar would rather be left alone. In the end, he has to ask Ahmad for a month's holiday in the provinces, feigning illness. As he prostrates himself before Ahmad, he is indeed pale, his pulse racing--yet if Ahmad knew the real reason why, Jaffar's head would be rolling at his feet. Yet Ahmad doesn't, doesn't; cheerfully, he grants Jaffar his freedom and sends him on his way.

Little does Ahmad know that that very night, Jaffar has his swiftest horse saddled so that he may leave for Isfahan immediately. He takes no guards with himself, no witnesses: he dons the disguise of a merchant, draws the tails of his turban over his face and sets off to find Yassamin.

Once he finally arrives at The Queen of Happiness, his horse is exhausted and so is he. He sleeps, he bathes, yet remains masked in the company of others; he avoids setting foot in the taverns and the shops, insisting that he be served in his room instead.

"Is there anything else you require, master?" his slave girl asks him as she sets down his dinner, looking as if she is about to bolt out of the door.

Jaffar does not touch his wine or his food yet, refusing to expose his features to the girl. "I am looking for two women. One young, one old, arrived from Baghdad one and a half years ago. Very wealthy, very refined."

The girl lifts her hand to her mouth, hesitating. Perhaps she thinks Jaffar is an assassin; perhaps she thinks that's why he keeps his face covered. "I--I wouldn't know, master."

"Come. I doubt it is whatever you think it is. I mean the women no harm."

She clutches at the door curtain. "You are a... friend of theirs, then, master?"

Jaffar bursts into laughter, knowing immediately what she implies. "Bring the older woman to me, as swiftly as you can. And make sure the younger woman does not know of this." He flashes his eyes at the girl. "There are five hundred dirhams in it for you if you succeed, but if you fail me, the wrath of the Caliph himself will be upon you. Do you understand?"

The girl blinks and swallows. Stuttering, she prostrates herself. "To hear is to obey, master!"

***

"Jaffar!" Ettabeh cries, running into her son's arms with tears in her eyes, capturing him in the tightest of embraces.

"Shush, Mother," he says, extricating her fingers when she tries to unmask him. "If anyone should find out who I am--"

"I know," she says and takes a few steps back, clasping his hands and grinning widely. "And it's not me you came here for."

He laughs nervously. "How is Yassamin?"

"She has not stopped talking about you, you old charmer," she says and caresses his cheek through his mask. "Why didn't you let me tell her?"

He looks around himself. "I want it to be a surprise. Where's she staying?"

"You're not going to go to her like that. She will die of fright!"

"Then, Mother, suggest a better disguise."

***

Despite Ettabeh telling him he does not need a disguise--the caravanserai accommodates several courtesans and the staff are used to men going in and out of the women's quarters freely--he still insists on absolute secrecy. Thus, Jaffar sneaks up the stairs in his mother's clothes, gathering his veil about his face. He could get used to this, he thinks; the silks are whisper-soft, the perfumes upon them much lighter and sweeter than what he has been used to wearing himself. And a lady's mantle is much lighter than a heavily embroidered court robe; oh, why was he not born a woman instead?

And yet, he is here a man to see a woman, his prick stirring against his thigh as he walks up the stairs, trying so very hard not to take two steps at a time the way he usually does. A man, a man, with his heart burning for his beloved, and he cannot breathe for his nerves. What had Yassamin felt for him the day they had parted? What does she feel now, now that she must have played their meetings over and over in her mind for the past eighteen months? Because he still remembers every touch, every kiss, every word in exact detail. What if her love has lessened as his has grown? What if--

He halts at her door, for he hears music. The sweetest, most pleasant of voices sings:

"My soul clung to yours before we were created,
Before we were weaned, before we were laid in the cradle."

Softly, softly he walks up to the window and peers through the lattice. And it is indeed her, only her, no minstrel-girl, this: Yassamin sits upon her bed, singing as she sews.

"Our love has grown and matured with our selves;
Death cannot break the promises of this love."

He presses his forehead against the wall and tries not to cry out, tries not to rush into her room this very moment and claim her, to show her he is here, he is here. If it is indeed he she is singing about--and it has to be, who else?

She lifts her eyes and gazes into the distance, and now he can see her eyes are wet from tears. Yet, she keeps on singing, lost in the song, her voice trembling.

"It will survive all the trials of fate
And visit us among the shadows of the tomb,
In the depths of the grave."

Jaffar sighs. No, not the tomb, my sweet; not yet, not yet.

And now, the song is over; it is his turn to enter the stage.

"I am here, beloved," he murmurs, then braces himself and opens the door.

"Mother, I told you not to--" Yassamin says and wipes her eyes, embarrassed at having been caught weeping.

But as she realises it's not Ettabeh she is talking to, she stills in shock. "Who are you?"

Jaffar does not answer, only crouches at the door, closing it behind himself.

"Who are you?" Yassamin says, now, louder, taking her scissors in her hand. "Speak, or I shall run you through!"

Jaffar steps closer until he kneels at Yassamin's feet, glancing at her scissors, unable to hold back a laugh. "Can you not guess?"

Her eyes fly wide and the scissors clatter onto the floor. She makes to speak, but her mouth gapes; no words come out.

Very well. Jaffar straightens himself out and pulls off mantle and veil, then kneels at her feet once more, grinning so hard his face hurts. "It is but I, Jaffar, your most devoted slave."

She reaches out and touches his temple, as if she didn't believe he was real--or is it merely because she has never seen him with his head uncovered? Suddenly self-conscious, he feels embarrassed for his thinning, graying hair. And he should not allow the demons of doubt in his mind to speak, but the words tumble out nevertheless. "Do you find me wanting, my lady Yassamin?" he whispers.

She but looks at him, looks at his face up and down. But then she can look at him no more: she lowers her face and it's contorted, twisted; a sob escapes her chest.

So it is true, then. She has realised how old he is, what a fool he is, and he should leave and drown himself in the nearest well.

He averts his eyes and gets up. "I apologise, my lady. I have disturbed you when I shouldn't have."

She bolts to her feet. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"I--"

She slides her hand to his chest, through his woman's jacket and its open undershirt, resting her palm over his heart. "You are an idiot, Jaffar. Has anyone ever told you that?"

"Many times," he laughs and dares put one hand on her shoulder, searching her eyes. "So I did not disturb you after all?"

She but glances at his hand, then back at his face. "I don't think you've disturbed me nearly enough, Barmakid," she says, then yanks him against herself so violently they both topple onto the bed, kissing him with such force their teeth clash. "God, Jaffar, Jaffar, Jaffar," she groans, sinking her fingers into his hair, kissing him and kissing him, clutching his waist with her legs. "It's you, it's you, it's you!"

"My lady!" he laughs between kisses, answering hers eagerly, rolling around on the bed so that he now lies underneath her. And he is glad for her weight as she straddles him, glad for her hands upon his chest, for he fears he would burst from sheer happiness otherwise. He cannot stop laughing, cannot stop caressing her, drinking joy itself from her lips. "My lady, my lady."

"Oh, don't call me that," she says, hugging him close to herself. "I am no lady, but an adulteress," she moans, yet with heartfelt delight, and he wonders if she had planned this, if she had rehearsed those words in the months they had been apart.

And this stirs him, in his body as well as his soul and he groans as she grinds her buttocks down on his erection. "My God, Yassamin! I never knew you could be like this!" he laughs, undoes her veil and sinks his hands into her hair in turn. "What has the waiting made you into?"

She ceases her squirming and casts down her eyes, embarrassed. "I am sorry. Have I behaved like a harlot?"

He lifts her chin with his hand. "I think you have been wasted on a man who cannot appreciate a woman's passion," he murmurs, his voice serious, now. "I saw you on your wedding night," he admits, even if he fears her reaction.

When she merely keeps on staring--oh, she must not have put that past him, then--he kisses her hand and continues. "Slap me if you want. But before you do, know that I hate Ahmad with all my heart, and swore that day that I would never hold your desires against you, no matter what. I would--"

She slaps him, only a very light tap on his cheek, and oh, she is grinning, laughing, rolling her hips once more. "There; your punishment."

"God, Yassamin." He knew her true self, the Yassamin not suffocated by Ahmad for a woman passionate, curious, playful, and already she would set her free? It's not what he had expected at all, but he most certainly does not disapprove. The heat in his hips now makes his cock swell further, the ache in his sack now so sweet it makes him hiss out his words. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this."

She crosses her arms over his chest and nuzzles his face, her eyes even more crooked now as if from wine, her perfumes of jasmine and ambergris enveloping him in their sweetness. "Tell me more of these wild dreams of yours, Jaffar," she grins. "Do they often involve you in women's garb?"

He laughs at the ceiling, still not believing this is real, breathing God's name in his joy before he looks at her once more. "Perhaps you should tell me of your wildest dreams, my lady," he says and closes his hands around her waist. Such a tiny waist, such a fragile waist atop such full, wide hips; oh, but he wants her to stay there forever.

Yet she unbuttons her jacket and frees her breasts, then leans down to kiss his nose. "No, my love. You tell me first."

And no matter how passionate, no matter how confident, a woman is still likely to hide a nervousness underneath such an amorous assault. And the way to a woman's heart is through kindness, is it not? Therefore, as she has called attention to her breasts, he now lifts his hands to them, cupping them from below the nipple as a good lover should, squeezing them very gently. "I did dream of doing this," he says and kisses each breast, reverent, sweet, not sucking on her nipples yet even if he has dreamt of doing that, too.

"I am glad." Again, she falls upon him, laughing, her hair cascading around his face as she kisses him and kisses him.

"And what did you dream of, my lady?" he says, still softly kneading her breasts as she slides her jacket off her shoulders.

"So many things," she says, shaking her head. "I don't even know where to begin."

"We have plenty of time, now," he says, shrugging off his own jacket and undershirt. "They aren't expecting me in Baghdad for a while yet." He gathers her against his chest, skin warm against skin, flesh warm against flesh, her heart beating against his. "Know that whatever you wanted to do to me or wanted me to do to you, I would not think you a harlot." He laughs a little ruefully. "I am a man of many sins; I am hardly the one to talk about what's chaste."

She groans into his shoulder. "You know it's different for a woman."

"And that is exactly why I think you brave, Yassamin of Basra, and why I feel honoured," he says, kissing her ear. "For no ordinary love would make such a good woman cast shame into the wind."

She lifts her head to kiss his mouth. "Shame has tried to slay me from the day I met you," she sighs. "He has tried and he has tried, and as you can see, he has failed. How could I not love you?" she says, raising herself up on her hands, marvelling at him. "How could I not?"

And he cannot answer anything to that, can only feel tears escaping his eyes, running down his temples into his ears, his chest trembling, all of his body aching. And the way she now cups his cheeks with her hands, the way she smiles at him, brighter than the moon in the sky--

"My Jaffar," she but laughs and kisses him. "My sweet, sweet Jaffar."

"My sweet, sweet Yassamin," he laughs; his night-blooming jasmine flowering on top of him--

But oh, oh. He has forgotten to say the three most important words. He knows how much a woman needs to hear them, knows not to omit them, but she has so intoxicated him he has forgotten himself. The three words that now encompass his entire being, his entire existence flow from his lips onto her skin. "I love you," he whispers against her cheek as he undresses her, himself; "I love you," and now she sobs so much from her emotion that he covers her body with his, pressing her into the bed, careful not to hurt her with his weight. As his tears dry, hers break free, and with another "I love you," he gathers them from her temples with his lips.

And with a desperate cry, she takes his mouth, digging her fingernails into his scalp, trembling underneath him. She opens her legs to slide her cunny against his cock and rubs herself against him fervently, delirious. "Please, Jaffar, please. Take me now. I have waited too long, I--"

He moans into her shoulder, nearly coming there and then as she anoints him with her cunny--oh, how many years has it been since he has last felt a woman in this way? And a woman this aroused, wanting him so much that her thighs, her buttocks are smeared wet?

Yet he would not disappoint her. "I always thought our first time would be slow, gentle," he grins. He takes her hands and pins them to the mattress, rutting in her cleft, his sack tightening as he sees how much she enjoys him taking charge in this manner. "Sweet touches, gentle kisses," he scolds her playfully, kissing her with open mouths, drinking in her moans.

She shakes her head. "I thought of that, too; of sweetness, of gentleness," she murmurs. "Yet, I have changed my mind, as it happens."

And as she frees her hands and sinks her fingernails into his back, his prick drips.

"I--God, Yassamin--" his voice is now hoarse and he has to pin her wrists down once more, laughing in disbelief. "You know, I think I have changed my mind, too," he says and takes her wrists in but one hand, guiding the tip of his cock to her cunny with the other. Her wet heat drives him mad; he is trembling from the effort not to thrust. "Is this what you want, beloved? Is this it?"

"Let me tell you what I want, my sweet Jaffar," she breathes and kisses his neck, nips at it with her teeth--oh, how does she know he likes a little pain like this? Has someone told her? And why is he asking himself this, because Jaffar, you idiot, could it perhaps be that she was made for you?

"Tell me," he groans, the tip of his cock nestled between the sweet, fat lips of her cunny, his own slickness now mixing with hers. He squeezes her wrists so hard he must be hurting her, yet she smiles, smiles.

"Ravish me," she grins and spreads her legs wide. "Ravish me, my sweet Jaffar."

He laughs and shakes his head. "Oh, my love, I shall."

And he holds her gaze as he slides into her, so wet, so hot, so wet, oh, sweet, Merciful God: little by little, he enters her, begins to move inside of her. She holds his gaze in turn, and oh, but the noises she makes, the noises: first little cries of alarm, then ones of astonished delight. And the way her cunny flutters around his cock when he stills within her--but a spontaneous reaction of her body, not the trained squeeze of a slave girl; oh, but it breaks his heart.

"Am I hurting you?" he asks, caressing her cheek with the backs of his fingers.

She but shakes her head, her eyes unfocused. "Is this how good it feels when you are in love?" she laughs, her voice wet from tears.

And now he cannot bear it, has to hug her against himself, the woman who has never been made love to, even if she is the woman who deserves all the love in the world. "Oh, Yassamin," he murmurs, moving inside her with all the skill he is capable of, not even caring for his own pleasure. This is how it should feel like, my love, this is what love feels like; let me show you, let me show you.

And she starts, looking up at him, stunned.

Jaffar bursts into laughter, realising what he has done. "Was that how loudly I thought it?"

"Yes," she says, a little nervous. "Can you hear my thoughts in turn?"

"Would you like me to listen?" he asks, still moving within her slowly, covering her shoulders with kisses. "Or would you rather keep them to yourself?"

"Not at a time like this," she says, pausing to kiss him deeply, moaning into his mouth as he finds what he thinks is just the right angle. And because she lets him, he can hear her: That feels wonderful; oh, I hope he will never stop. How can this not hurt? Ahmad never reached that deep, and yet it hurt. Is he touching my womb or is that beyond it? And yet that jumbled chaos of thought is broken by bursts, sparks of red and white and ecstasy through her hips as he takes her. "Please, don't stop," she cries out loud, clutching his back. "Please, Jaffar, please."

"I had no intention of stopping," he growls and keeps on taking her, her fingernails sending exquisite lashes of pleasure-pain down his spine, rushing into his hips as heat. "I would give you release," he says, moving inside her faster, squeezing her breasts in his hands, savaging her neck with his mouth. "I would feel you come undone around me."

"I don't know how to, oh, Jaffar," she sobs as he takes her faster and faster. "Forgive me, I don't know how, I--"

"You think too much," he says, and laughs inside as he thinks of Masrur always saying that to him, always.

And underneath him, she bursts into laughter, the convulsions of it making her cunny clench so violently he is nearly pushed out of her. "I knew it!"

"Oh, God, I am sorry," he groans and slumps on top of her. "I did not mean for you to see that."

"I don't know; I quite liked it. Is that why you're so good at this?" she says and strokes his flanks, urging him to continue. "Because you know how it feels to lie underneath a man?"

"Partially," he laughs. "Now let me lie underneath you, my love; let's see how you like being the man."

He turns them around, gesturing for her to ride him. It's obvious she hasn't done this before either, and her tremor of delight as she sits down on his cock echoes through his own chest as well, bursting from both their mouths as a sigh of happiness.

"Oh."

"That's it," he chuckles. "How do you like your new steed, my lady?"

"He is wonderful," she grins, rocking upon him a little. "I could get used to this."

"I would not mind at all," he murmurs and pulls her into a kiss. "And I will let you in on a secret: even if he is the one being sodomised, a man's climax is never as intense as a woman's, and only lasts for a fraction of the time."

"I'd noticed," she says and rolls her hips; oh, she is such a fast learner. "And you would steal mine from me; is that it? Feel it as I feel it?"

He chuckles, sending that chuckle echoing through her hips, making her very cunny flutter around his prick. "You are a clever girl," he purrs. And he can't remember the last time he was this hard; it's as if he has grown two more inches just from the feel of her mind brushing against his, fast, sharp, shot through with desire, so much like his own. And the tremors she experiences at his words, oh--"Clever girl, clever girl," he purrs once more until she is moaning on top of him, riding him vigorously, now.

"Oh, God, Jaffar--I don't know how--"

"Yes, you do," he says, kissing her breasts, so wonderfully heavy, so wonderfully soft against his mouth. "Come, touch yourself, the way you do when you are alone. Use me for your pleasure; it will be my pleasure, too."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I am sure," he says with a kiss, running his fingertips down her spine, then allowing her to sit up once more. "Have you any idea how long I have dreamt of this?"

With a little laugh, she does as she is told. Yet he can feel her nervousness, hear it, all the doubts and fears and I-can'ts in her mind. But underneath them, he can also feel the determination of the sinner, the woman who would gladly be damned for the sake of this love, for the sake of experiencing true pleasure for the first time in her life. And besides these things, he feels her humility, too--it astounds him that she so submits to him, yields to him, trusts him to guide her pleasure. He has to kiss her hand in encouragement, send out a tendril of thought into her mind. Go on, my love. Please.

And as she closes her eyes and strokes herself, pleasures herself with his body, nothing he has ever felt in his life has been as perfect. Yassamin, his Yassamin rising on top of him, silencing all her fears for the sake of her love for him, her need to prove herself to him, to give herself up to him. Her body soft, white, whiter in the moonlight that now paints her breasts, the curves of her belly and her thighs, glistening upon her wet fingers. The full, fat softness of her cunny, her thighs, her buttocks as she takes him inside of herself, her flesh become but love, but surrender, but honeyed sweetness. Honeyed sweetness filling his nostrils, and he has to dip his thumb in to join her fingers, to lift it up to his mouth for a taste.

"Yassamin," he sighs, his balls so full, so wet from her cunny, aching; yet it is the sweetest ache in the world. Gladly would he spend an eternity here, bury himself in her entire, and for a brief, maddening moment, he wishes he could be swallowed up by her womb so that he might sleep there forever. Death itself awaits them outside this chamber should they ever be found out, yet here, but for these few moments, they are the source of all life itself, a man and a woman joined in love, in pleasure. As God had intended them to be, despite arranged marriages, despite war and betrayal, despite everything that has ever tried to keep them apart.

We survived, Yassamin, he thinks, we are alive and we are joined and that's all that matters, all that matters, all--

And it is at that that she curls on top of him, her hand flying on her cunny, her other hand pressed into the mattress and she howls. And he lets her ride him, gives himself to her and caresses her with his mind: Let go, my sweetest love, let go, let go.

And as she does, screaming and shuddering in surprise, his surprise is even greater. For not only does her entire body tremble from her sweet contractions, but her orgasm spreads well outside her body, an aura iridsecent, shimmering, exploding into a thousand rays of delight. She hums, vibrates, undulates with it, takes him into herself with it, coming and coming, seismic waves he cannot resist; with a deep, anguished cry, he surges into her, all of Yassamin claiming him, sucking him inside of herself. His very spine melts, liquifies, shoots out of him as sperm, saturating her as she has saturated his very soul. And yet she keeps on radiating, and now he radiates with her: as bright as the sun and the moon he burns within her, through her, piercing her with his ecstasy.

"Oh my God," she finally moans as she pants on top of him, plastered against his chest.

He but chuckles, out of breath himself, white lights still dancing in his eyes. "Not bad for a beginner, as far as sexual magic goes," he slurs, his hand falling from her hip, his muscles too fatigued even to caress. "And yes, I shall tie you up later."

She snaps up her head, staring at him, still not used to him being able to read her thoughts. "That was--"

"A plan to protect your honour in case they should catch us in the act, I know," he laughs. "I must say it's a delightful vision. Was that much how I frightened you? That you thought I would ravish you? Or was that simply wishful thinking?"

She groans, but he can feel her cunny clenching around his cock. "A little of both," she mumbles into his shoulder.

"Well, I haven't finished ravishing you yet," he says, stroking her hair, kissing her forehead. "As you can probably feel."

She lifts herself up on her hands. "And I need the bathroom."

"Don't be too long," he says and smacks her on that perfect plump arse of hers.

Yet he, too, needs to relieve himself, to clean up a little. And what better way to do it than by sharing the bathroom with her? Thankfully, this caravanserai has running water, and they spend a long time washing each other under the shower-fountain, kissing each other all over. She is soft, languid from the warm water, from the cups of wine they have shared in between washes, yet he cannot stop pawing at her, can't stop kissing her. He knows it's quite ungentlemanly of him to molest a woman so, but she certainly does not protest: he sighs in utter delight as he kneels behind her and laps at her, feasts on the fresh new sweetness of her cunny. The cunny he never got to taste in full, the sap of it so slick upon his tongue, the lips of it so full against his mouth he has never felt the like.

"Is this how much you want me?" he asks in astonishment, before he realises that the words may not have come out as he had intended, as if he were doubting her love.

Yet she laughs against the tiles, turns a little so that she can caress his hair. "I did not know what it meant to want someone until I met you, you devil," she says. "You have completely enspelled me, sorcerer mine; utterly, utterly bewitched me."

"I am glad," he says, taking her hand and closing his eyes, burying his mouth in her perfection. For long moments, he sucks on her cunny, kisses it, teases it, not even intending to give her release. He is selfish and he knows it, and the way she enjoys this sweet torture fans his own desire all the more. He strokes his cock as he feasts on her, licks her from her slit to her arse, just as he had promised, moaning at the sweetness of her cunny, the musty salt of her anus. And as he swirls his tongue there, she shakes, her buttocks clenching: shock mixed with arousal radiates from her, as if she were fighting herself.

"Jaffar--"

"I'm sorry," he mumbles, pulling back.

"No, please, don't stop," she says.

"Very well, but I think we should continue this in bed," he says, wrapping a towel around her. "Come."

Yet once they reach the bed, it is she who insists on taking the lead. "Lie down, my love," she murmurs, pressing her hands against his chest.

And as she lies down between his legs, he knows what she is after: the pleasure Ahmad had denied her. Yet it is her smile that makes his heartbeat stumble more than her hand on his erection does; that, and the way she nuzzles his cock, her damp hair dragging against his thighs.

"Would you let me kiss it?" she asks, and even through her smile, he can sense a little hesitance.

He but strokes her cheek, his own voice choked from happiness. "I would love you to."

"You'll have to teach me," she says and presses a soft kiss below the head; whether from knowledge or instinct, her touch is perfect already.

"That feels wonderful," he says, "but you may kiss it wherever you want, my lady."

"Then I shall," she says and flashes him a coquette's grin, filled with girlish delight.

And she does kiss him all over, exploring his flesh as if he were the bride and she the bridegroom: gladly, he gives his body into her hands, seeing how much pleasure she derives simply from touching him. He does not dip into her mind, does not caress hers with his; he only lies back and watches her, takes in the happiness upon her face as she kisses different parts of his cock, his sack and his thighs, stroking him softly all the while. And oh, the way she looks up at him to observe his reactions; the way her wary, shy looks and kisses melt into wicked, wicked grins and sucks until they are both drunk from lust, reeling from it, both out of breath, his cock gleaming in her fist.

"Does that please you, my lord?" she smiles after a particularly passionate suck.

He but shakes his head. "You were born for this. Admit it; you were a pleasure-girl in a past life. God, your mouth--" he laughs into the canopies. "I am still waiting to wake up, because this must be a dream, must be."

"It makes too much sense for a dream; therefore it must be real." She rolls her hand over the head of his cock the way he has just taught her to, rubbing her thumb at that sweet spot she had first kissed. "If I was a slave, you must have been my master," she murmurs, resting her cheek on his hip. "For never did I know anyone could possess me so completely."

He pulls her to lie down on top of himself and kisses her for a long while, tasting his arousal from her lips, sighing into her mouth in utmost happiness. "Perhaps we are mistaken. It could have been that I was the slave girl and you my master," he says, gliding his hands across the soft down of her back, her buttocks. "For I have served many kings, but none of them have ruled me the way you do, my lady."

"Oh, but I would you ruled me again, my lord," she sighs, stretching on top of him.

He dips his hand between her buttocks, stroking her anus softly. "Is that so?"

She moans a little. "I am not clean enough. Besides--" but it is at that that she hesitates and buries her face in her arm.

This baffles him, considering the amount of times he has seen her playing with her arse, the way she had come undone on his fingers when he had come to her as a ghost. But perhaps that's exactly it, perhaps... "Tell me."

"Promise me you will not think me a fool."

He continues to stroke her there, his heart aching at how afraid she still is to voice her desires. "Upon my love for you, I promise."

"I would... well, I would like to save something special for the wedding night," she mumbles. "That's all."

He bursts into laughter, and to show her it is not a mocking one, he pulls her into a deep kiss, hugging her tight. "The wedding night! Oh, you are making me feel light-headed, my love. I swear to you that if Ahmad were here, he would not live for five minutes longer."

"Do not jest," she says.

"I am not jesting," he sighs. "For all we know, Fadl might be Caliph by the time we return. And I swear to you, my lady: the day Ahmad is put into the grave, I will call in a judge to marry us," he groans and slaps her buttocks.

She laughs a little nervously. "And you would sodomise me over his grave, is that it?"

Jaffar raises his eyebrows and shrugs. "If that's one of your wilder dreams, why not."

Yassamin smacks his shoulder. "You are terrible. And the most terrible thing about it is that I know you would."

He wriggles his hips. "I will save something special for the wedding night myself, then."

"Oh?"

He kisses her mouth. "Mmm. I have this wonderful blue sash--of Basran silk, actually--and now that I think about it, it would look quite fetching wrapped around those little wrists of yours."

He knew she would moan at that and laughs as he drinks in that moan, smacks her buttocks to draw another from her, a third. "I thought you might like that."

"I feel like rushing to Ahmad's bedchamber with a dagger now, myself," she groans.

"Listen to us, my child!" he laughs, smacking her arse once more for good measure. "It's our first night together and we are wasting it on talk of murder!"

She wriggles upon him in turn. "Yes, and I think it's about time you did something about that."

His only answer is a playful growl and a tussle. Soon enough, she is on her back and his mouth is buried in her cunny once more. His jaw and tongue are aching by now, but he simply cannot get enough of her; he pays her back for the pleasure she has given him in full measure. Where he had been burning from lust but a few moments before, he now makes sure to turn her mad from it, lifting the hood of her clitoris to expose it, sucking the tip into his mouth. And the way she shakes from this, kicking at the sheets, clawing at them makes his own cock shift against the mattress, yearning to be enveloped by the sweetness his mouth is now tasting. For it truly is the sweetest of cunnies, quite probably the sweetest he has ever tasted, with hardly any bitterness to it at all. And the wetness of it, the wetness! Something even the greatest of courtesans cannot artifice with their creams, this wetness and this swelling that can only ever be found on a woman truly in love. Even if Yassamin hadn't spoken a single word, her taste, her flush, her heat against his mouth would have been proof enough that she loves him, loves him, loves him.

"Please, Jaffar, mercy! You are killing me."

"Oh?" he grins and licks his lips. "It's only fair; you nearly slew me but moments ago."

"God--" she clutches at the pillows, her hips trembling. "Don't stop."

"But you just asked for mercy. Would you rather I took you with this?" he strokes his cock a little, but before she can answer, he sucks upon her cunny once more.

"Please!" she screams, now clawing at his shoulders. "Take me."

He slaps her thigh. "Turn around. So that you are on your hands and knees."

She does as she is told, curious, clearly not having been taken in this position before. What a waste, what a terrible waste, Jaffar thinks as she turns around and exposes those wonderful, wide buttocks to the moonlight, to his gaze. He kisses them both, kisses his way up her back, to her neck, and by the time he has covered her and brought his hands to her breasts, her nipples are rock-hard against his palms. She shivers underneath him as he kisses her over her shoulder, shivers more as he rubs his cock against her cunny, purring against her.

"There we are, my child," he croons, "there we are."

"Take me," she murmurs against his mouth, nuzzling his hair. "Please."

"I must warn you," he says as he guides the tip of his cock inside her cunny. "Man or woman, this position allows the deepest of all penetrations. It might hurt, or it might feel wonderful."

"It feels wonderful already," she sighs.

Yet he wants to go slowly: he rubs her sides, her belly, squeezes her breasts for long moments as he moves inside of her, a little deeper each time. "You have to tell me how it feels, my love," he whispers. "Talk to me with your hips; make noises with your mouth."

She groans through her teeth. "If I didn't hold back, they would think you were murdering me."

"Then we will just have to see how long it takes for me to break you," he growls, clawing at her belly.

And the way she moans at that, the way she shivers around him and pushes her cunny back on his cock, oh, he knows it will not take long, not long at all. Soon enough, she is screaming, her hands braced against the wall, screaming even louder as Jaffar brings one of his hands to her cunny and rubs her clitoris, now so swollen and stiff within the flushed, plump mound of her cunny. Oh, it truly is the sweetest of cunnies, just the sort he likes, the old rake in him rearing his filthy head; a cunny fat on the outside, tight on the inside, so tight, so tight. God, he is deep inside her, now, so deep she is wetting his balls, dripping down to his thighs. But a few thrusts more and he will have undone himself, but he wants to ruin her first.

"I will not dip into your mind, now," he pants against her ear, licking it, wetting it with his saliva, her wails and the pulse in her cunny driving him out of his mind. "You will have to do it all by yourself. Let me feel you come. On my hand, on my cock. Are you ready?"

"I can't, I can't," she panics, thrashing underneath him, yet still fucking herself violently on his cock, without rhythm, erratic.

"Oh, but you can," he snarls, pushing so deep into her her face is pressed against the wall. And the way she shakes at that, the way her cunny drips--she is close, she is close, and he knows. All she needs now are a few select words, a few calculated movements. And he need not look into her mind to know that it is her shame that is the key to her undoing; that it is by taking her sin and celebrating it, loving what Ahmad despises that he shall free her.

"Jaffar--"

"Shh. I know you can, I know you can. Because I know what kind of a woman you are, Yassamin," he croons in her ear, sweet, lascivious, slick. "What kind of a woman leaves her husband and throws herself on another man's prick like this, hmm? What kind of a woman are you, Yassamin?"

And it is then that she truly breaks, sobs, her cunny pulsing underneath his hand once more. She twists herself backwards, kissing him fiercely over her shoulder, howling into his mouth. And her voice is full of hatred, full of bitterness, so many wasted years, so many thwarted dreams. "A whore," she spits against his lips, dripping with spite, "a whore," she wails as he keeps on taking her so hard the bed creaks.

And he pushes her against the wall once more, fucking her and stroking her with all his might, wrapping his arm around her neck. "And that's why I love you, Yassamin of Basra," he says, his heart breaking as he feels her belly dip, as he feels her come undone. "You are my whore, and no one else's, all mine, all mine," he moans until her screams drown out his voice, until she wets his hand with her release, convulsing so violently she claws flakes of whitewash off the wall. She keeps on shaking, keeps on screaming and he holds her all throughout it, holds her, strokes her, moving into her with a steady rhythm until he can be sure she is sated.

With a long, final groan she falls slack, slides off his cock, collapses upon the bed. "You bastard, you utter bastard," she pants, her eyes staring into the distance. "And yet I love you," she murmurs.

He spoons her from behind and kisses her shoulder. This, this very state rivals the greatest of orgasms, he feels: he has spent so much time with men he'd forgotten how wonderful it felt to turn a woman inside out, to turn the chastest of ladies into a shameless harlot. He has never understood what joy there was in taking someone by force if he could seduce them instead, to make them love what was being done to them, make them relish their own corruption.

And no boy or man could ever be as crippled by shame, as shackled by chastity as a woman; there are few challenges as demanding as the conquest of a true lady. To have this, a woman sated and debauched in his arms is the greatest triumph he could enjoy as a lover, and never has he felt as proud of himself as he does now, having conquered the woman he loves the most. He might have taken her before, might have let his very soul spill into hers, but is this not the truest of transformations--to not only reach into her soul, but free it from that which binds it?

Yet he has to be sure that this is not just his own pride talking: therefore, he embraces her mind with his as he embraces her with his body, listening to her thoughts from afar, as if snatches of conversations overheard.

Bastard--love--sodomite--whore--I am not going back to Baghdad ever again--bastard--he has not come yet--but I am so tired--bastard--whore, oh, whore--I want to laugh--I want to cry--

And his heart aches for her, aches; he has to turn her around and kiss her, to hold her in his arms. "If I have done something wrong, feel free to slap me properly, this time."

She but shakes her head. "I don't know what to say, my love."

"How do you feel?"

"I feel..." she looks into his eyes, thinking. "Light, somehow. Yet guilty."

And that stabs his heart--he did not succeed, after all. Foolish of him to have thought that he could do it in one night. "I want to take that guilt from you," he says. "That's why I spoke the way I did. Believe me when I say that I did not use that word the way he does. To me it is an endearment; surely you know that?"

"That's not what I meant, you old fool," she grins, wrapping her hand around his cock. "I meant the guilt for having left you like this."

He sighs in delight, a huge weight having fallen off his chest. "You are paying me back right now," he murmurs.

But then he can speak no more as she slides down and loves him with her mouth, sucking him, kissing him, cupping his balls in her hand. And he is still is so hard, so keen that he knows it will not take long, now: even if she is still a little clumsy at this art, nothing could feel as wonderful as her mouth now does.

"Does that please you, my lord?" she murmurs as she pulls back for breath.

He turns onto his back and groans. "It pleases me very much. Although I must warn you that if you keep doing that, I will spill in your mouth."

"Good," she grins and gives his cock a long lick. "That's what I want."

"My lady--" he moans and as she takes him into her mouth again, his head falls back on the cushions, and how could he resist? The greatest of sexual sins, performed upon him by a queen? He laughs in disbelief as she licks him, laves his entire groin; so in love with her he deliberately tries to delay his own release so that she will never have to stop.

Yet it is then that he feels a pressure on his anus, a slick finger--no, two.

"Yassamin!" he gasps.

"You might know what kind of a woman I am, but I also know what kind of a man you are, my love," she laughs and sucks his cock into her mouth, massaging his arse gently with her fingers.

"Oh, God, Yassamin--" Oh, this woman--he is lost; he is hopelessly, utterly lost. For over thirty years he has been the most debauched of men, but out of all his women, none have ever dared touch him in this manner. Some have played the part of a boy underneath him, yet none have yet dared make a boy out of him.

But of course, out of all the women in existence, it had to be Yassamin of Basra, who else? She is but giving him the thing she herself finds most pleasurable in the world, the very act he had first seduced her with.

And she is right, right. "Yes, my lady, I am a sodomite," he hisses through his teeth, shivering as he looks into her eyes, confesses his true nature to her as she had confessed hers to him. "A sodomite."

And she but hums around his cock, laughs around it, hooks her fingers inside of him and he is gone, gone. He cries out, sobs, lets himself be taken, ravished by the one he loves more than his own life, giving himself unto her entire. Again, he surges into her, swirls into her, is gladly claimed by her, gladly. The pleasure pushes him so beyond himself that he merely watches, listens, mesmerised as she coughs in surprise, then swiftly swallows him, drinks him into herself. He feels the waves of orgasm tossing his body, sees the hair on his thighs stand on end, feels his own fists clutching the sheets, yet he feels distant, as if he were a witness to something greater than himself. Is this what the heretics and the libertines mean when they say sexual ecstasy can make one see God? And if God is love, is this it, him, the summit of physical love the beginning and end of all things?

Perhaps he blasphemes, but he is entranced, still not quite himself as she lies down on top of him, lacing her fingers with his, gifting him with a sperm-slick kiss. All he can mumble is a weak "I'm sorry about the taste," yet she but laughs and laughs, pulling the covers over them both.

"It is quite strange," she says, some time after, her head pillowed upon his chest.

"What is?" he kisses her hair.

"Do you know, I feel happy. We might die tomorrow, another war might start tomorrow, yet... Jaffar, I find myself trying to worry, but I cannot." She lifts her head and looks at him. "I lie here in the arms of a man not my husband while the world burns around us, yet I cannot feel guilt, only happiness. I should fear God's wrath, yet I do not. Do you think me wicked?"

"No, I do not." He kisses her long, slow. "I'm not sure if I remember the last time I was this happy," he says, clasping her hand over his heart. "And I would not think about the past; only the present. The woman I love, resting in my arms, holding my heart in her hand. There's nothing more I could wish for."

"Then let us forget sleep," she says and wraps her limbs around him. "Perhaps, if we make love long enough, we can outrun the morning and the day will never catch us."

And his chest aches again, aches as he lies down on top of her. "It's certainly worth a try," he says and takes her mouth with a kiss.

Chapter Text

***

The Caliph's palace, Baghdad

Three months later

***

Yassamin lies underneath her husband and stares at the ceiling, the mosaics dancing in her eyes as Ahmad grinds and pants on top of her. She tries to think of Jaffar, tries, but he would never move like this, would stretch out his thrusts to prolong their pleasure, would kiss her as he took her--yet she is glad Ahmad doesn't; she could not bear to be kissed by him, now. So she lets Ahmad enjoy her, lets him take her newfound softness and warmth for that of conjugal bliss. For upon her return to Baghdad, she had been happier, had felt her steps lighter, and even the sun itself had felt warmer, the shade of the trees cooler, the flowers more fragrant. For she had found love, true love, and what else mattered, now?

Even her separation from Jaffar had felt sweet, intensifying her love for him, and she had taken a guilty pleasure in this as she had lounged in her bed alone, reading his love letters over and over. His ciphered words of anguished passion, the poems he had composed in her honour, from the filthy to the sublime: she had memorised them, had held each letter to her bosom to imprint its words upon her heart before consigning it to the flames.

During these past three months, she has been glowing: she has been perfuming herself more, beautifying herself more, masturbating more. So that on nights like these, when Ahmad has visited her bedchamber, he has found her softer, less nervous, more yielding. Yet she has had to remain passive, has had to constantly remind herself not to be passionate with him, take initiative with him the way she had done with Jaffar, to the latter's delight. So she has kept her moans quieter, has only caressed Ahmad's back with her fingertips; whereas Jaffar had been drunk on her screams, had been pushed into orgasm more than once from the sweet pleasure-pain of her fingernails dug into his back.

Their last morning together, Jaffar's back had been covered in welts, small beads of blood still drying upon his skin as he had pulled on his undershirt. She had marked him, he had said, had made him her own, and he had joked that maybe she should rub ink into the wounds to make the marks permanent.

"Maybe I shall," she had said and pulled him into a kiss, into one last, quick, animal copulation despite the servants waiting outside.

And now, as Ahmad dresses, his back is clean and bare, brown and firm, still a youth's. He smiles at her over his shoulder and she looks back at him demurely, not letting her smile widen into a true debauchee's grin.

"It is true what they say," Ahmad murmurs and kisses her hand. "Absence does make the heart grow fonder."

"I am glad you feel the same way, husband," she says and kisses his hand, even if her hips are aching from denied release. Why hasn't he left yet? She is desperate to masturbate alone, in peace, with the image of Jaffar still burning within her mind.

Ahmad sneezes loudly, then wipes his nose on his sleeve. "Pardon me. It's terribly drafty here, I must say. Why on earth do you insist on remaining in this house, when you have much nicer ones to choose from? I could have them build you a new palace, too, if you so wished."

"I like to be close to the cats," she says, glancing at the two now warming themselves by the brazier.

"Be that as it may," Ahmad says and pats her hand, "it's your turn to visit me next time."

A shudder goes through her and she casts down her eyes, pretending modesty when it's the wailing of a dead woman and her children she now hears in her ears. Yet now, she thinks she might have an excuse not to visit that room--perhaps ever again.

"Ahmad, there is something I need to tell you."

He lets go of her hand and starts to pull on his robes. "Can't it wait until next week?"

"No." She looks up at him, pleading, tugging upon his sleeve. At that, he starts, not used to such boldness; therefore, she lets go immediately, then casts down her eyes once more.

"I apologise, my lord. But, you see..." she clutches at the bedclothes. "I think I am with child."

His face brightens and he sits down next to her, taking her by the shoulders. "Really?" He kisses her forehead. "But that's wonderful news! It must have been this newfound happiness of yours, you know. They do say that a woman in love, one who takes pleasure in her man is more fertile." He lifts her chin and kisses her mouth. "Clearly we should have a new war each year, if a little exile works such wonders on your heart. Then we should have no shortage of heirs!"

"It must have been that, yes," she says, clasping his hand, her eyes filling with tears, her stomach burning from her lies. "It certainly helped me understand what love meant," she says, and she looks straight through Ahmad, not into eyes brown but Circassian blue.

And it is at that that the acid in her stomach makes her bend double in horror, for what if the child's eyes should be blue instead of brown? She extricates her hand. "I... I am sorry. It's been a long day."

Yet Ahmad rubs her back and laughs. "No wonder you feel ill, you poor thing," he says. "I shan't take you to bed from now on, so as not to disturb the child. Slave girls will do me fine. But you will keep me informed, will you not?"

She shakes her head. "I am not sure if it is a child, yet. I... the travel took its toll on me, and I have not been the same since. It might just be an imbalance of the humours."

Ahmad kisses her hair. "Nonsense. You have been glowing happily, as an expecting woman does. I am happy for us; know that. Us and our little prince."

She dares smile at him, weakly. "I will send news."

"Good." He pats her hand. "Now, my courtiers are gathering for revelries; I cannot keep them waiting. I am to have a match of chess against Jaffar tonight, and I intend to give him a sound thrashing. Wish me luck."

"I shall," she murmurs as he takes his leave.

***

"It's yours," she sighs and leans her head against the lattice.

Jaffar but squeezes her hand. "Are you sure?"

"I am," she says, laughs through her tears, a laughter hysterical. "That's what I get for not letting you sodomise me instead."

He kisses her hand. "I will think of something."

"Stop being a fool!" she snaps. "There is no time; you know the law as well as I do. Even if Ahmad were to die now, I would still have to wait four months before marrying you, exactly so that they could see whether I was with child. Everyone would presume it was his, until--" now she is sobbing uncontrollably, so violently she is barely able to speak. "Until they saw it had blue eyes; I know it will have blue eyes. We are doomed, Jaffar. We are doomed."

"Don't say that," he whispers and squeezes her fingers, then gazes at the heavens, blinking tears from his own eyes. "I will not let this happen again. I swore I would not let it happen again. I will not--"

"I could go to a midwife," she sniffs. "I--"

"But you wouldn't. Otherwise you would have done so already, without having told me."

"What are we to do, Jaffar? What are we to do?"

"Oh, my love--"

And he murmurs a rune and forces himself through the lattice, trembling from pain, trembling from effort as he gathers her into his arms.

She clings to him, wetting his robe with her tears. "What are we to do?"

"I am going to tell Fadl the time has come," he murmurs, rocking her in his arms. "Not the reasons; only that we cannot wait any longer."

But she cannot hear him; she is delirious from her horror, from her shame, recoiling from him, the man she has sinned with. She is a bad woman, a failed woman, the foulest of women, and she cannot stop weeping. "They'll whip me, they will stone me to death, they will--"

"Stop saying such things!" he moans, taking her by the shoulders. "If it comes to that, I will use magic to turn the child's eyes brown, if they aren't brown to begin with. But I swear to you upon my life that I will find a way."

She is still hysterical, but she lets him kiss her, lets him crush her with his embrace, suck the breath out of her lungs until she stops panting, until her heartbeat slows down. She wants to trust him, wants to. He only wants them to be happy, and she wants happiness, does she not? But even if he has magic at his disposal, that might not be enough to save them.

And it is at that very moment that the lattice rises between them once more and Jaffar collapses upon the ground, his breathing ragged. "I'm sorry."

"It pains me to see you like this," she says, reaching her hand through the lattice. "I would not have you do this to yourself; I would like for our child to have a father."

He fumbles for her hand, his own clammy and cold around hers. "We will be together soon, I promise it. No lattices, no curtains, no Caliphs in the way."

And it terrifies her that murder should be the only way. Yet, so be it: they have come too far to turn back now. She could have said no to Jaffar, could have rejected his advances at the beginning, but no, no. Now, she only has herself to blame. It is certain by now that someone will die thanks to their crime, and she would not want that someone to be Jaffar, herself or her unborn child. No, no; as much as it turns her stomach, she knows Ahmad is the one whose loss everyone would regret the least, being of such poor intelligence and such weak character. And if Fadl has indeed been planning a coup for years, he would have Ahmad murdered whether she and Jaffar were lovers or not.

Yet she looks into Jaffar's eyes, searches them, pleads with him. "Must it all end in bloodshed?"

He laughs, a little melancholy laugh. "Let me show you something."

He reaches into his jacket and pulls out two scrolls, then pushes them over to her side. "Your birth chart and mine."

She studies them for long moments. "But these are all... benevolent aspects; all of them full of energy, life."

"And that's what makes them dangerous. See the power within them, the Sun-Lion himself aligned with the sign of the Archer? The one who knows no fear, joined with the one who never misses her mark?"

She shakes her head. "I do not feel like a warrior."

"But you are, and one braver than I for what you have risked, for the battles you are now fighting," he murmurs. "I am but the one who spurs you onwards, the one who enlivens you, who heats up your blood," he chuckles.

She frowns, looking at the charts over and over. "You should not have brought these," she says, quietly. For the beauty in them, the harmony of star-Jaffar and star-Yassamin as they sit there side by side, the most perfect of companions--oh, it makes her heart ache.

"Do you mean it would've been easier for you to forget about me if I hadn't?" he says, trying to make light of it, but she can hear a vast, terrible bitterness in his voice. "Do not think the stars do not terrify me, my lady. Do you know what they say of such unions, of what happens when the two lovers are not betrothed to each other in childhood, but given to others instead?"

She stares past the withering roses, past the crumbling plaster into the dark.

"For such a love swords will be drawn,
Wars will be fought
Until Heaven itself burns
Until the earth itself is scorched black.

For such a lover will not cease to pursue his beloved
Until the thorns of his longing will have run him through
Until he will have stained her veil with his blood
Until he will have breathed his last in her arms."

He makes to say something, but thinks better of it, unable to look at her.

"Is that what you would want for us, Jaffar?" she whispers.

He wipes tears from his eyes, sighing quietly. "No. I would not. I would not."

"If you martyr yourself, Jaffar, I swear--I swear I will follow you to Hell, if only to add to your torments."

"And I swear to do the same to you," he groans. "Listen. I would not wish martyrdom upon either of us. Remember what the prophecy says: either we will be together or one of us dies. Why are we ignoring the first part? Should we not strive towards union rather than death?" He kisses her hand. "Imagine us together, Yassamin. No, do not think it foolish or naive. Imagine it; that's how a magician brings things into existence, after all. What do you see?"

But it is his vision she now sees, for it radiates from him, permeates her mind through his pulse touching hers: of his garden in his palace, them sitting together in one of its pavilions, surrounded by the fragrance of flowers and the laughter of their children. The children he never got to keep, running around in the grass, calling to their parents to come look at the new games they have just discovered, the new tricks they have just learned. And in this dream, she rests in Jaffar's embrace, his arms warm around her, his laughter pure happiness against her ear.

And she weeps and she weeps, because she wants this, yearns for it so; it's what she, too, has always wanted, always.

And now, she adds her own dreams to this vision, changing the palace into a country house, the garden into one more modest but no less beautiful, making them into a family of merchants instead. Not a Queen, not a Grand Vizier, but two ordinary people not bound to the Caliph or his politics, somewhere far, far away from Baghdad. For it had been in exile that she had experienced the greatest happiness in her life, she tells him, and had that not been so for him as well?

"Yes," he laughs through his tears, kissing her hand, kissing it.

"We should just elope," she sighs, wiping her own eyes. "Leave all of this behind. All of this blood," she spits.

"Perhaps we shall," he murmurs. "And you never know. When Fadl is Caliph, he might let me retire and we could move to the provinces."

"It is a beautiful dream," she murmurs.

"Now, stop that right there--don't start belittling it," he warns. "The more you focus on the dream, the closer you will come to realising it. This is a cardinal rule of magic. Remain focused."

"That doesn't mean you're not a fool, however," she says, yet she cannot help but smile at him.

"Then, please, my lady, let us both be fools," he says and kisses her hand once more. "I will tell Fadl tonight, and demand that he set a date. I will send Khalil to you as soon as I know."

She pulls his hand to herself and kisses it in turn. "I shall await your word."

***

Yet Khalil does not arrive that night. Yassamin lies in her bed in a horrified stupor, only able to catch short snatches of sleep. And when she dreams, her dreams are full of blood, of children laughing and then screaming, of her fingernails stained with Jaffar's blood. Yet in these dreams, Jaffar is nowhere to be seen, nowhere, and she is alone, alone, alone.

***

Yassamin wipes her mouth with a groan. "It's just morning sickness. Leave me alone."

Yet Nasrin shoves the cup into her face. "Get this down you."

"I can't hold anything inside of me." And when Yassamin turns around, her nose tickles and she has to sneeze violently. "God. They were right, it is drafty in here," she says, pulling her bedcovers tighter about her.

Nasrin feels for her forehead. "You seem feverish. I am going to call for the doctor."

Yassamin rolls her eyes. "I'm fine." She takes the cup, glances at the vile green liquid, then back at Nasrin. "If I drink this, will you leave me alone?"

"I will, but I'm going to call the doctor nevertheless. She might find something--"

And as Yassamin gags on the liquid, vomiting into her chamberpot once more, Nasrin rubs her back. "Perhaps she might find something you will be able to keep inside of yourself. Durra!"

"Yes, madam?"

"Ask the eunuchs to bring two more braziers, will you? And make sure that your mistress is well-covered. Fetch a shawl or two, now." She glares at the girl. "Well, what are you standing there for? Hurry!"

"Yes, madam."

"Send for Khalil," Yassamin moans as she falls back onto the pillows.

***

Yet Khalil is already on his way. Jaffar has just sent him off with a love poem, one describing the union of lovers upon this very day--the signal he and Yassamin had agreed upon. It would be too dangerous to tell the boy anything more and Jaffar knows this: he gathers his robes about himself and descends the stairs into his chamber.

"Good morning, my cat-prince; good morning," the pairi purrs, licking her lips. "What gifts have you brought me this time? What sweet--" but her purr ends in a fit of spluttering and coughing.

"A thousand apologies," Jaffar laughs as he closes the vial of blood he has just emptied upon the crystal, and thus, upon the pairi's head. "I did not have the time to bring you sperm this time."

The pairi scoops the blood from her face and licks her hands. "It will do. My, my, but yours is full of the humours of love; it tastes as if the sperm has entered your blood! Still unfulfilled, are we? Beware, my pard; soon the sperm will enter your brain and render you a madman."

Jaffar rolls his eyes. "If you don't render me a madman first. You can help with my fulfillment, if you would but care to listen. I want you to show me the Caliph's chambers."

"He is not there. He has just left to lead the midday prayers."

"The Great Mosque, then."

For Fadl had not told Jaffar the exact time he would take action, only that it would be today. Jaffar is more than a little irritated by this--it's not unusual for a ruler to be assassinated mid-prayer, but surely Fadl would not want to harm the reputation of the Barmakids so? On the other hand, Fadl had not told him the exact method through which he would dispatch Ahmad, either. Perhaps he has hired a fanatic, a pagan or a Kharijite; then the murder would seem religiously motivated and Fadl could play the hero, slaying the assassin, thus showing he was worthy of inheriting the throne. Yes, perhaps that's exactly what he has planned.

And as the pairi takes Jaffar to the mosque, seating her vision just atop the minbar, he sees the men arriving. In the front row, Fadl and the other viziers, court officials and generals; before them, Ahmad, clad in his royal black and gold. He stands and waits until the muezzin has climbed down from the minaret and made sure everyone is in attendance. At that, of course, Fadl makes a point of looking around for Jaffar, who should be standing between himself and Masrur right now.

The muezzin nods, and Ahmad begins the prayers. But to Jaffar's surprise, absolutely nothing happens during the entire ritual process--not even as Ahmad keeps offering additional prostrations. The man barely knows what religion means, yet shows off beause piousness is expected of a Caliph, and that's why Jaffar has always hated the days when Ahmad has been the one leading the prayers. They may call the Barmakids sinners and freethinkers, but at least Jaffar knows the Holy Book by heart, whereas Ahmad--

But it is then that Ahmad cries out and collapses upon his rug, clutching his stomach.

Yet the strangest look in the entire mosque is upon Fadl's face: he seems genuinely surprised, exchanging glances with Masrur. And at the same moment, Jaffar realises the man he is looking at is not Masrur. Even underneath his hood and mask, Jaffar can tell this man's eyes are too large, his hands a shade lighter than Masrur's as they reach inside his robe, presumably for a hidden dagger. The assassin Fadl must have hired, then.

Oh, the gall of that bastard, to disguise his assassin as Jaffar's best friend! Fadl has not done this to frame Masrur or Jaffar, Jaffar is sure of it, but simply because Masrur's mask had offered Fadl an advantage. Masrur never uncovers his face in public, not even for prayers, so this had made it easier for Fadl to get an assassin within striking distance of the Caliph.

Still. The rotten scoundrel--why, were Jaffar there in person, he would now be strangling Fadl with his own bare hands!

Fadl touches the assassin's arm and rushes to the Caliph's aid, making a show of great concern as he lifts Ahmad's head into his lap and undoes his turban. "Send for Bukhtishu!" he cries to the chamberlain. "Hurry!"

"Is something wrong, master?" The pairi asks as she sees Jaffar frowning.

"I am not quite sure myself. Will you take me to the Caliph's own bedchamber?"

"My sight is weakening," she groans, and the vision dims; they can no longer see the mosque.

"This is important," Jaffar says and shakes the last drops of blood from the vial onto the crystal. "Will that do? That's all I have for now."

She yawns and smacks her lips. "That should do for a little while. The Calipha's bedchamber, you said?"

Jaffar makes to correct her, but the words die in his throat as he sees Yassamin writhing upon her bed, covered in sweat, pulling her bedcovers off herself.

"Leave me alone," Yassamin groans as Khalil and the women arrive to tend to her.

"I am sorry; you meant the Caliph, did you not?" The pairi says and looks into Ahmad's bedchamber instead, shows Jaffar Ahmad in the exact same state, writhing in cold sweat, pushing people away from himself.

"No!" Jaffar cries. "Take me back to her! Or--is there any way you could show me both?" he tears at his own turban, now, pulling it off his head in his agitation; the horror of what he is now witnessing is strangling him. What if it's poison? Administered to them both? But why Yassamin, why? Oh, but he will kill Fadl; he will kill him!

"I can only show you one or the other, master," the pairi says; even she sounds a little frightened.

Her words are broken by a clattering noise as Ahmad knocks the cup of medicine from Bukhtishu's hands.

"Leave your poisons out of this, you Christian dog! Leave me to die alone!"

The silver-haired doctor steps back, offended, clearly struggling not to snap at Ahmad. "That was the only preparation I had of that drug, my lord. I have a little more left, but you would be advised to take it, lest you are in a hurry to meet your maker."

"Who poisoned me?" Ahmad cries, clawing at the bedcovers, glaring around himself, at his ministers.

Bukhtishu takes his wrist and feels for his pulse, his forehead. "I doubt it is poison, my lord and master. I have seen plenty in my time, and this does not seem to be the work of one. It seems like a natural fever, perhaps a milder form of some pox. These can sometimes cause delusions."

"I am not delusional," Ahmad groans, his sweat now running down his neck in rivulets. He keeps on staring at Fadl in particular. "Where is your brother? Was it him? Is that why he dare not show his face, to look upon me as I lie dying? Hmm?"

Fadl shakes his head, as perplexed as Ahmad is. "Upon my soul, this is not our doing, my lord and master. May God extend your years, may He bless you and glorify you--"

"Oh, quiet, you old bosom serpent," Ahmad pants. "Leave. All of you except this old alchemist here," he laughs bitterly, taking Bukhtishu by the sleeve. "Perhaps then you will tell me who poisoned me."

Fadl and the ministers have no choice but to leave. Jaffar raises his hand so that the pairi may remain watching, and they stay there for long moments, waiting for Ahmad to speak.

Bukhtishu pours him another measure of medicine and this time, Ahmad drinks it, wincing.

"It's no good, old man. What sort of fever would rise to such heights so quickly?" he slurs. "I had been suffering from a cold all week, but I thought it was leaving me. The fool I was," he spits.

Bukhtishu feels for his pulse once more, looking at him with despair. "Often those are the most dangerous sort, my lord. They pretend to retreat, but then attack with doubled vigour."

Ahmad looks at him, pleading, his face a frightened child's. "Be honest with me, Jibril. Am I dying?"

Bukhtishu lets go of his hand and remains quiet for long moments. What is a doctor to tell a patient at a moment like this? "I could perhaps draw a little blood, to see if I could bring down the fever a little," he finally mumbles.

"Pardon me if I doubt your skill as a physician," Ahmad snarls, then coughs. "For you do not seem at all convinced. Again, I ask you to tell me the truth: am I dying?"

Bukhtishu looks at him for a long while, then takes his hand once more. "Yes."

Jaffar groans and tears at his hair. "God--!" He strikes the cushions with his fists. "That means Yassamin is dying, too. Oh, pairi, what am I to do, what am I to do?"

"Master--"

"To hell with Ahmad; Yassamin is more important. Take me to her."

"She is in vastly better hands than our lord and master, if you permit my saying so," the pairi whispers, trying to placate him.

"Who is it?" Jaffar has never seen the harem doctor, as they are usually women and never tend to grown males.

"Your doctor's mother, methinks," the pairi says and shows him Yassamin's room.

Yassamin turns her head upon the pillows and moans. "Go away, all of you, I told you."

"She has been saying that all day, madam Bukhtishu," Durra says and shakes her head. "To everyone who approaches her. We have tried hot towels, cold towels, but she just casts them off, throws them on the floor."

And now the woman they had addressed as another Bukhtishu approaches, looking very much like her son with her hooked nose and her keen, wide eyes. Where her son's hair had been silvern, hers is a pure white, her face lined with what must be near a century's worth of wisdom. Even the sight of her, her calmness in contrast to her son's helplessness, is enough to kindle a little flame of hope in Jaffar's heart.

She waves her hand and speaks, with a heavy Syriac accent. "I doubt she recognises anyone in her state. Still, let me talk to her." She steps up to Yassamin's bed and holds her hand. "Can you hear me, Your Highness? It is Maryam, your physician."

"Jaffar," Yassamin moans.

Khalil's eyes fly wide. Quickly, he rushes to Maryam's side, desperately trying to cover for Yassamin's indiscretion. "Is she thirsty, to speak of wellsprings so?" he offers.

"Or poisoners," Maryam mumbles.

"Do not say such things, madam!" Durra gasps.

"And why not?" Maryam says. "Half a dozen men called Jaffar in the Diwan, another half a dozen courtiers; all of them scoundrels. Take your pick."

"Am I--am I poisoned?" Yassamin mumbles, her eyes unfocused.

Maryam feels for her forehead. "I wouldn't let yourself be carried away with such fancies if I were you, my child," she says. "It feels like an ordinary fever. Can you swallow anything?"

"No," Yassamin croaks, her throat bobbing at the very idea, it seems.

"An enema, then," Maryam says to Durra. "Boil me some water," she says and kicks at the vomit-stained chamberpot. "Bring me two more of these, and take this one out, will you?"

"Yes, madam."

"You, boy;" she says to Khalil, "there is a syringe in my bag--it's glass, so be very careful with it, it's the only one of its kind this side of Damascus--and tablets of camphor, the blue box. When she brings the water, drop three tablets into the syringe, then fill it with the water and shake it until they have dissolved. When the water is lukewarm, let Durra administer it, but slowly. Do you understand?"

"Yes, madam. But where are you going?"

"There are some herbs I need to fetch."

Yet Jaffar--or rather, his spirit--is in the corridor as soon as Maryam steps into it. He concentrates with all his might and taps her upon the shoulder. "I have the herb you seek," he whispers through his ghostly lips.

"Who goes there?" Maryam says, turning around in astonishment. "Who is it that speaks?"

"Ask not, my most honourable lady. But hurry to the menagerie, the cat house. Ask the keeper to show you to the room next to the garden. You will find a pouch there, filled with a rare Chinese herb, and instructions on how to use it."

"That I should let a ghost tell me how to treat my patients?" she scoffs. "Who are you, the spirit of Hippocrates?" she laughs. "Perhaps if you were, I would be inclined to listen."

"No," Jaffar murmurs as his vision dances with lights, as he reels over the crystal, sick from exertion. "I am but the one who loves her the most. If you have ever believed in God, madam, trust me. Just as I trust her life into your hands."

Maryam huffs and lifts her chin. "I do not for a moment believe you come from God, demon, but under the circumstances, I shall humour you."

The crystal goes dark and Jaffar collapses upon it, every muscle in his body trembling from fatigue. With the last of his powers, he raises his hand, lifts a pouch from one of the shelves and sends it into the garden, to the very gap through which he had clasped Yassamin's hand.

Do not fail me now, Almighty God, he thinks and then he can see no more.

***

The camphor finally stills Yassamin's body, weighs it down into the mattress, weighs her down like a lover--oh, Jaffar; slowly, it relaxes her limbs like lovemaking, like Jaffar, like Jaffar.

"Jaffar," she moans and opens her eyes.

Khalil looks around himself--it seems Durra hasn't heard, having fallen asleep by the brazier. Gently, he takes Yassamin's hand and whispers in her ear. "Today we shall be reunited," he recites. "Tonight the veil shall be lifted, the clouds shall move aside to reveal the stars; tonight Lover and Beloved shall become one," he says. "That is what your wellspring whispered to me," he smiles.

She smiles back weakly and squeezes Khalil's hand. "If it isn't too late." For she understands immediately what Khalil means--were she not so ill, in such a torpor from the camphor, she would laugh. "What news of the Caliph?"

"Badiyan!" Maryam cries from the door, practically dancing into the room. She opens a little pouch and shakes a few of the dried fruits into her hand; seed-pods that look like seven-pointed stars. A wonderful fragrance fills the room, so wonderful even Yassamin's nostrils flutter at the scent.

"What is this strange herb?" Yassamin slurs.

"It's from China, a herb that works wonders for fevers. I have been trying to cultivate it in my garden for years, with little success." Maryam tucks the fruit back inside the pouch and hands it to Khalil. "You, boy. Go heat up more water, pour out one cupful, then put half a dozen of these in it. Steep them for ten minutes, crush them if you must, as long as it's as strong as can be and you can see oil floating upon the surface. Then add two spoonfuls--large spoonfuls--of honey and bring it to her." She glares over her shoulder at Durra. "Girl!" she claps her hands until Durra awakens with a start. "Bring distilled liquor. Don't be prudish; I know the eunuchs must be hiding some somewhere."

"Yes, madam," Durra mumbles and rushes out of the door.

Finally, when the tea is ready, Maryam holds the cup to Yassamin's pale lips herself. "There we are," she says. "Perhaps now, we'll have a chance of salvaging my family's reputation."

"What do you mean?" Yassamin says, sipping the hot, sweet liquid, its taste unusually pleasant for a medicine; it feels like she might even be able to keep it down.

Maryam looks at Durra, who has just arrived with the liquor. "You tell her, if you overheard the same news I did. Is it true what they say?"

"Yes, madam," Durra says as she sets her tray beside Yassamin's bed. "I am--I am so sorry, mistress," she says, wringing her hands.

Yassamin empties the cup and sets it upon the tray, but does not look up. "Tell me."

"The--the Caliph is dead."

Yassamin says nothing.

"And it's my son they will blame; I know it," Maryam spits.

Yassamin stares at the tray for a long while, stares at the star-fruits in her cup and the marquetry of stars upon the tray itself; she thinks of the stars in heaven. The accursed, blessed stars that had led them here this day--oh, she bends double from her horror, her stomach cramping. She writhes and she gags, but now, her spasms don't stop: despite the camphor, her entire body is thrown into convulsions, so that Durra has to hold her down.

Yet the spasms of her weeping are worse than those of her stomach, and it is not Ahmad she is weeping for, no, no. For it is only now that she can feel a wetness between her legs, a wetness that should not be there; a sticky flow that becomes worse with the spasms, accompanied by a tearing pain now ripping through her womb: no, no, oh, Merciful God, no.

"This is not happening," she wails, flailing, a madwoman. "This is not happening!"

Durra looks at her with tears in her eyes, still holding her arms down. "I am so sorry, mistress, so sorry."

"It is not he I am weeping for!" Yassamin screams from the bottom of her lungs, so loud she is sure the entire palace can hear. "No, Almighty God, no! Where is your mercy? Where?" she shrieks.

She kicks her bedcovers aside, for she must see, she must. She pulls up her nightgown and there, between her legs, there: her child, bursting out of her, but a bloodied mess upon the sheets. Her love, her very life bleeding out of her, and it's so small, but a gory clump: she can't tell if she sees limbs, if that is a head, if it was a boy or a girl, if its eyes were blue or brown or green--she screams, and with her screams, more of the child's remains are pushed out of her and it's dead, dead, dead.

She screams until she is hoarse, screams until they have to tie her down and force opium down her throat. Dimly, she can feel Maryam washing her on the inside, can feel her tucking a roll of cotton inside of her to stop the bleeding.

"I am sorry, mistress, I am so sorry," Durra keeps murmuring, mopping Yassamin's sweaty hair from her forehead.

Khalil but looks at them, pale, and he must know who the child's father was, he must: quietly, he leaves the room and that's the worst thing he could do. For now, all Yassamin can think about is what Jaffar will think when Khalil tells him. For her body has failed them; it has failed Jaffar's love, it has failed their happiness, lost the child Jaffar had wanted so much, and she cannot stop sobbing.

"Murder me, Bukhtishu," she cries, choking from the pain in her belly and her heart; "give me enough opium to slay me, please, please," for she cannot bear it, would rather die than live another day, another moment in this horror and this pain.

Maryam but shakes her head. "Only enough to make you sleep, my child."

"Please, please," Yassamin moans, delirious, and as she closes her eyes and thinks of her garden, all the children who had played there now lie dead, the grass stained red from their blood. And she hopes she will never stop bleeding, that she will never see the morning, that she will never have to see the disappointment upon Jaffar's face.

"God knows best," Maryam says as she feeds her another spoonful of opium, "God knows best."

"Then may His name be cursed for all eternity," Yassamin whispers as sleep overcomes her, a sleep she hopes she will never awaken from.

Chapter Text

It's not until the next day that Jaffar is fit enough to walk. Just as he had expected, Fadl has been sworn in as Caliph, and Jaffar is yet to congratulate his brother. He washes and dresses in a hurry, yet he could not care less for congratulations--he knows what he will be asking Fadl. And if Fadl says yes, then there will be nothing that stands between him and Yassamin, nothing at all: he runs through the corridors to his brother's chambers, pushing past the guards in his haste.

Yet what he sees makes him halt at the door. "Oh. I'm sorry."

"That's what you get for barging into my quarters unannounced," Fadl sighs and leans back against the pillows, turning back to the three naked boys now pleasuring him with their hands and their mouths. "A coronation gift from Mother, you see," he says and sips his wine, gesturing for Jaffar to pour himself some.

"Not now, thank you. I need to talk to you about something, brother."

"Commander of the Faithful, now, surely?" Fadl smirks and groans as one of the boys begins to suck and bite Fadl's index finger, slicken it with his spit.

Jaffar rolls his eyes. "Commander of the Faithful, head of the Abbasid Caliphate."

"Barmakid Caliphate. Really, Jaffar. So hung over you have forgotten your family name? It wouldn't be the first time," Fadl mumbles, hissing in delight as the boy turns around and guides Fadl's slickened finger to his arse. "God, would you just look at these? All fresh from the Caucasus, all intact so you have something to grab a hold of." He sets his wine upon the floor and one of the boys licks up the drops Fadl has spilled on his chest, while another sucks and laps at his sack, one still riding his finger. "With boys like these, who needs houris?"

Jaffar sighs, gathers up his robes and sits down next to Fadl. After all, it's not the first time he has encountered him like this; from time to time, they have even shared boys, the odd girl. Yet even as Jaffar's prick stirs at the sight, his mind is elsewhere. And as the boldest of the boys now turns and takes Fadl's prick instead of his finger, sitting down on it with a sigh, his white and pink arse spreading around Fadl's thick cock--oh, all Jaffar can think of is the pleasure Yassamin had promised him. If he squints, he can imagine it is Yassamin, the boy being just as pale, just as dark-haired, his skin still as downy as a girl's, and now Jaffar's erection chafes against his robes so much that he groans.

"By all means, brother, help yourself," Fadl laughs, and the two other boys measure Jaffar boldly with their eyes, squirming in delight. "They are the sweetest of lads and will not tire any time soon."

"Not for me, thank you."

"What is this sudden prudishness?" Fadl asks as he turns the first boy around, so that he can now face Jaffar as he takes the youth from behind. "Don't tell me it's a girl!" he groans, groans louder as one of the boys spreads his buttocks and starts to lick his arse. "Oh, God--these are such good boys; look at that initiative!" he rubs his arse against the boy's greedy mouth, twisting his hair, hissing in delight. "God, keep going, just like that."

Jaffar has to turn his face away, has to press his erection with his hand to try and calm it. "It's a woman," he murmurs.

"Knew it!" Fadl laughs as he starts to move faster, the boy he is taking now mewling, his cock dripping with Fadl's thrusts. "Are you sure there is no way we could tempt you back into the ranks of sodomites, brother mine?" he says and pulls out, gesturing to the third boy. "Come on, little one. Come here. Show him how good you really are."

And as the boy licks and sucks Fadl's gleaming cock straight out of the other boy's arse, moaning in abandon--oh, Jaffar can't take it any longer; he has to pull up his robes and take his cock in his hand. And Fadl knows how much Jaffar enjoys this, glancing at him with wicked glee as he dips his cock into the first boy's arse, then back into the other's mouth, purring at them in delight. "Such good boys, such quality boys," he croons, and all of the youths moan in unison; all of them stroke their little pricks, pleasuring their master with mouth and arse, worshipping him a Ganymede tripled.

"There, Jaffar," Fadl says, petting the boys' heads. "Now, would a woman do anything of this sort? Hmm?"

Jaffar presses his head into the cushions and groans; he cannot bear this. "She just might."

"Oh-ho-ho," Fadl laughs, "a tomboy, then, is it? No wonder you are in love. Come here, lads."

Fadl lies down on his side so that he can spoon the boy he is fucking, guiding the other two to lap at his arse, his balls and his shaft. And as the boy who had been tasting the other's arse now bends over right in front of Jaffar's face, rocking his hips, his pink little anus but a foot from Jaffar's face, Jaffar has to again press his face into the cushions and think of Yassamin, Yassamin, Yassamin. Yassamin wanting to play the boy to him, the only act of love they have not shared yet, the wedding night still out of his reach. He curls up and moans, stroking his cock, thrusting into his hand, close to weeping.

"Yassamin," he cries despite himself, whimpering as he spills upon the cushions. Even as one of the boys arrives to suck him clean he moans in despair, covering his face with his hands.

"So that's how it is," Fadl says as he reclaims the boy from Jaffar to serve his own prick instead. "Surely you do not need my permission to marry her, but her father's?"

Jaffar wipes his eyes and tucks himself back into his shalwars, adjusting his robes. "No, brother, it's not that. The Sultan said he wanted to marry her to me if the Caliph didn't accept; that's how taken he was with me when I first went to see her." He pauses to make sure Fadl listens. "It's only that I want to retire. I want to give up my post as Grand Vizier, Fadl, and to take Yassamin with me to Isfahan."

With a long groan, Fadl falls back onto the cushions, gesturing for the boys to lick up his sweat, to finish him off with their mouths. He lies there for a long while, staring at the ceiling, caressing the boys, the only sounds in the room those of his heavy breathing, of the boys' sucking, lapping mouths.

"Let me think about it, brother," Fadl gasps and he closes his eyes, shivering underneath the boys, jerking as he starts to come undone. "Ah--oh, God, keep doing that, yes; suck, my boy, suck." He keens, twisting upon the bed, forcing one boy's head down on his cock, one between his buttocks. "You lick, God, keep on licking, push your tongue as deep as you can, ah--!" And now he is bellowing deep from his chest, the boys gagging, coughing as he writhes himself into a long, loud orgasm between them.

"God, God, God, God, God," Fadl moans, collapsing on the bed, breathless, hugging the boys weakly as they drape themselves over him like a blanket of flesh.

"Well?" Jaffar asks, offering Fadl his wine cup.

"I shall call a judge to draw up the marriage contract," Fadl mumbles after a long sip. "As for Isfahan, you can have it. Will four thousand times thousand dinars do you for the first year?"

But as Fadl looks up to hear his answer, he finds Jaffar already gone, his brother's cries of delight echoing in the corridor in his wake.

***

"I am free! I am free! I am free!" Jaffar shouts as he runs up the stairs to his apartments, to a baffled Masrur awaiting him. "Do you hear, Masrur? I am free!" he cries and throws off his turban, dancing Masrur around the room, kissing him, screaming in delight like a young girl.

"You have gone mad," Masrur says and forces Jaffar to sit down at his desk. "Thirty letters for you to sign, right there, to announce the coronation of the new Caliph. That one's for Charlemagne himself, don't sp--"

But Jaffar has knocked his inkwell over it already, laughing, humming a happy song as he pulls off his priceless court robe and uses it to mop up the ink. "Soon I will not be Grand Vizier any longer, my friend. Not a single letter to sign, not a single minister to please, not a single--" he stills, quiets. "I suppose you wouldn't want to join me and Yassamin in Isfahan, Masrur?"

"Would you like me to?" Masrur asks. "It is a little sudden, and I would have to ask the wife."

"I would pay you handsomely, you know. And you would no longer have to... well. Whatever it is that you prefer, really. Being my right-hand man or Fadl's executioner. And knowing his temper, I predict you would be buried under work, as it were."

Masrur sits down next to him and sighs. "You know Nasrin has a son by him, and he has no others, not to my knowledge at least." He buries his face in his hands. "Merciful God. That boy might inherit an empire!"

"Nasrin, the Queen Mother," Jaffar says, shaking his head. "Stranger things have happened."

"I truly don't know, Jaffar. Who knows, she might divorce me now that she gets to lord it--well, lady it over the harem. Or she might need me more than ever, and in any case, little Husayn needs someone to watch over him day and night."

And it makes Jaffar's heart ache to see Masrur's face so stricken with grief, now: yesterday he was but a foster father, loving Nasrin's son as his own; today, he risks losing both wife and child, having suddenly gained a thousand enemies. He seems older, too, his hair and his beard grayer; Jaffar cannot help but embrace him.

"If there's anything I can do to help you, old friend," he murmurs into Masrur's shoulder, "anything at all, but ask."

Masrur does not speak for a long while, but Jaffar can tell he is trying not to weep; he can feel Masrur's throat bobbing. In all the years he has known Masrur, the most fearsome man in the Caliphate, he has never seen him cry; yet as Masrur hugs him back, Jaffar can feel his tears on his undershirt. And he knows Masrur hates himself for breaking down thus; therefore, Jaffar does not say a word, only holds him close the way Masrur has always held him when he has needed it the most.

"You're an idiot," Masrur mumbles into his shoulder, not letting go of him.

"Why is that?" Jaffar asks.

"You have just come from Fadl, have you not?"

"Yes."

"Then why didn't you go and tell Yassamin first?"

Jaffar mumbles into Masrur's shoulder in turn. "I didn't know whether she was well enough to receive me yet." When he had crawled out of his chamber last night, Khalil had told him Yassamin had been very ill, but that her fever had gone down and that she was sleeping.

"Nasrin was worried sick for her last night. She came to see me this morning and said Her Highness had woken up at least. Mumbled your name in her sleep, apparently."

"Really?" Jaffar's heart leaps in his chest.

"Nasrin said she had always known, by the way." Masrur pulls back. "And do you know what she said to me?"

"Well?"

"'I wonder if I should tell her the very same Jaffar loves bouncing up and down on your prick!'" he laughs. "How do women know these things? I would not know if a woman was keen on me until she grabbed me by the sack."

"Witchcraft," Jaffar laughs and nuzzles Masrur's face. "I have always thought I would have been much better a sorcerer had I been born with a cunny."

"Aye," Masrur says. "A cunny is quite a magical thing, I must say. It's made a decent man of you, for a start." He smacks Jaffar's arse, then drops a kiss onto his lips. "Come. We must get you a new set of clothes; you're not going to go and see your new wife like that."

"Masrur the Lucky, I am going to miss you," Jaffar sighs, hugging him tight.

***

Clad in his brightest silk suit, Jaffar practically dances down the corridors to the Queen's palace, requesting an audience with Yassamin. And what with the way the eunuchs glower at him, it's a good thing he will be Grand Vizier for a while yet; this means he can glower right back at them with authority.

"The Caliph has decreed I am to wed her in four months," he says. "Therefore, I am her closest male relative outside Basra, so wipe those frowns off your faces."

The eunuchs look at each other suspiciously. They are right to do so, of course; nobody is quite sure of the pecking order in the palace today, but it seems these two need a little more pecking.

"Well? Isn't anyone going to escort me to her?"

It is then that Khalil appears at the door, having recognised Jaffar's voice. "But a moment, master," he says, nodding at the tray he is carrying.

Jaffar sighs and leans back against the wall, tapping his foot restlessly. Khalil is gone for but a few moments, yet they seem like hours to a man in love, a man so full of happiness he will burst if he cannot tell his beloved. Can the boy not see that? Once Khalil finally arrives to escort him, Jaffar rushes ahead of him, leaping up the stairs two steps at a time, so that Khalil can barely keep up with him.

"Master! Careful, master," Khalil pants as Jaffar reaches the door. "She is still very ill, and--" Khalil casts down his eyes as if he had just been meaning to say something, but now, he hesitates for a while before he speaks. "She is very fragile, master."

Jaffar but ruffles Khalil's hair. "Don't worry."

"Madam Bukhtishu told me to give you this," Khalil says and lifts up a bag of herbs wrapped in a scarf, the unmistakable scent of badiyan filling Jaffar's nostrils. "For your face, master, so that you would not catch the foul vapours in the mistress's lungs."

"I shan't need it," he says and turns the key.

"Master. Madam Bukhtishu said that if you would not accept the scarf, I should not let you in."

Jaffar glares at him, about to box the boy on the ear. Khalil takes a step back, yet he still holds out the scarf. "She--she said it was her way of saying thanks. To the one that loves mistress Yassamin the most, to the one who saved the Bukhtishus from perdition, she said."

Jaffar blinks, stares. "So she--" But then he groans and covers his face with his hands. "Does everyone in this blasted palace know?"

Khalil daren't say a word, but he cannot hold back a smile. Jaffar snatches the scarf from him and wraps it about his face. And the care he had told his barber to take this morning, all wasted, now! "I was to go in like a prince and now I look like a horse with a nosebag!" he grumbles.

"Still very handsome, master," Khalil smiles and opens the door.

"Wait for me outside," Jaffar says and locks the door behind himself.

He is glad for having worn such thin silks, for there are three man-sized braziers glowing in the room, arranged in a triangle around Yassamin's bed. The curtains are drawn so tight it might as well be night instead of midday; Yassamin lies in bed covered only by a thin white sheet. And even if she lies with her back turned to him, he can tell she is awake.

Softly, quietly, he walks up to her bed and kneels by its side, taking her by the hand. "Beloved."

She blinks at him, as if she didn't recognise him. "Not you again," she groans and squeezes her eyes shut. "I want the real him."

"If it's Jaffar the Barmakid you mean, this really is he," he laughs, yet he is horrified as he takes in her state: she does not feel feverish but cold instead, stinking of blood and sweat and pain. And the pallor on her face, the weakness of her pulse--he has only seen warriors in this state, after they'd lost great amounts of blood. As he looks at her, his joy and his happiness are crushed as if by an iron-clad fist, and he feels himself grow pale in turn.

"Say something, my love," he whispers, pleads for her with his eyes. "Or if you are in too much pain--" again, he thinks of wounded soldiers. "Blink once if you need more medicine, blink twice if I should examine you."

She blinks once, and tears roll down her cheeks. She is shaking, now, frowning, her jaw tight from pain.

He glances at the bedside table, immediately recognises the bottles and mixes her a dose of honey, liquor, badiyan and opium. At least she can swallow the medicine and the cupful of water he hands her straight after; never a bad sign. She does not speak, nor does he tell her to until she has rested for a few more moments, until the drug has started to take effect. He holds her hand until finally, she begins to relax and starts to breathe a little more easily.

"I would see your face," she mumbles.

"I hate this stupid rag, too," he says. "But I am told it will prevent me from catching your illness." He squeezes her hand. "And you are much younger and stronger than I; I would rather not risk it." And he cannot hold it in any longer, the happiness swelling in his heart once more--oh, if he doesn't say it now, he fears he will burst. "Especially as I am to sit underneath the bridal canopy with you in four months, my lady. Now, what do you say to that?"

She bursts into tears, pressing her face into the pillows. "Oh, God," she sobs.

That had not been the response he had been expecting, to say the least. Perhaps she is still delirious? "This is real, my love. I am right here, right now. And we are to be man and wife. Come, does this not make you happy, my child?"

"I have failed you even before I had the chance to become your wife," she says, and now, she is weeping so violently there is spittle hanging between her lips and the pillow. "God doesn't want this! God is punishing me; I am a sinner, a sinner."

"Come, now, Yassamin," Jaffar says, his voice wavering; he hugs her against his chest. "You are breaking my heart. What's the matter?" he blinks tears from his own eyes. "It's all over now. Fadl says he will relieve me of my duties and we can move to Isfahan, just like you wanted us to. And we can rear the child as our own."

She stiffens in his arms. "There is no child, Jaffar."

"What do you mean? I--" But he regrets those words as soon as he realises; for a moment, his heart stops. He had smelled blood when he had sat next to her, but did not realise she--and her pallor, her weeping--

Oh.

The heat of the braziers overwhelms him; his vision goes black and he collapses upon the bed with her. "Oh, God." He hugs her to his chest. "Oh, Merciful God."

"Don't you dare speak of His so-called mercy," she hisses against his chest. "He has killed our child!"

"I didn't mean--"

"I know you didn't," she groans, hugging him in turn. "Please tell me you will not leave me now."

"Leave you?" he is horrified at the very idea. If anything, her loss has awakened in him a fierce desire to nurture her, to protect her from all harm. "Whyever would you think that? Is it that bastard Ahmad? Telling you he would cast you aside if you didn't bear him heirs?" But he needn't even say it out loud--he has witnessed such brutality more than once. "Anyone who tells a woman that is a bastard."

"But you wanted children," she sobs, pressing her face into his chest, weeping so that she soaks his shirt with her tears. "And so did I; I wanted this child so much, I--"

And he feels her pain, feels it so keenly he can hear the rustle of the leaves in the garden, hear the laughter, the happy cries of that child, and her pain swallows him into its depths. He holds her and he weeps with her, weeps until he is panting, gasping for air through his scarf. He weeps for all whom he has ever loved and lost, weeps for Abbasa, weeps for their children, weeps for Yassamin and the child stolen from her womb by this horrible, horrible illness. And for a moment he wonders if God does not hate him, if he, Jaffar, hasn't cursed every woman he has ever loved. Would it not be better if he removed himself from Yassamin's life right now, so as not to give her more pain, so as not to slay her? She might feel like she has failed him, she might feel like she is a sinner, but is he not far, far worse, a man damned, bringing but death to the ones he loves?

And what better way to die than through this same illness? Furious, he rips the scarf from his face and kisses Yassamin, drinks in the bitterness of opium, badiyan and pain-sweat, the bitter salt of her tears.

"Stop it," she cries, panting against his mouth. "I can hear you. I would not have you kill yourself, you fool. You are not cursed."

"And you most certainly haven't failed me, and God does not hate us. Why would He have kept us alive through all this otherwise?"

She groans. "So He could watch us suffer?"

"He does not want people to suffer."

"Well, you certainly enjoy rolling around in self-pity, son of Yahya," she says, burying her face in his silks. "Idiot."

And despite everything, he has to laugh, has to hug her, caress her hair. "You don't sound so ill any longer, my love, if I may say so."

"I am still in terrible pain, if you must know."

"I do not doubt that. I only mean that you don't seem to be at death's door any longer, my sweet. Would you take a few more steps back from that door for me, so that I might see your face?"

She arranges herself more comfortably, making room for him so that they can rest face to face on the bed, now, holding hands. "Is that better?"

"Almost like husband and wife," he says, kissing her hand.

"If you will still have me," she whispers, searching his eyes.

"Of course I will," he murmurs and squeezes her hand. He wants to say that they will have plenty of time to try for more children, but bites his tongue instead. It would be disrespectful, now, might sound like he was belittling what she has just gone through.

"Yes, it would be," she says.

He rolls his eyes. "Oh, God. I really must work on protecting my thoughts more."

"Do they always bleed out like that?" she smiles, for the first time tonight.

He traces her lips with his fingers, adoring that smile, like the full moon emerging from behind clouds. "It only happens with people I love. And never more so than with you, my lady; you are quite the little thief to have so broken through my defenses, you know."

And her smile widens, widens with relief, with happiness, even if there is still a little melancholy behind it. "To think that we have had to suffer this much. Whatever must God think of us?"

"You might not agree with me, but I do think He has been merciful to us all along."

She casts down her eyes. "To my shame, I thought of that, too. That perhaps it was He who sent us this horrible disease, to save you and I from becoming murderers, to wipe the traces of our crime." She shivers, still, and pulls the bedcovers over herself. "I did not ask for this," she murmurs with quiet sorrow. "I did not ask for my husband to be killed, to lose a child only to gain another man's love."

"The stars are cold and care not for human hearts, my forefathers used to say. Had I known, I would have just abducted you from your father's palace and never gone back to Baghdad."

"Yes, and I would have hated you forever for it. Imagine it, us living amongst the Bedouin, or as beggars," she laughs bitterly. "We would have been happy at first, then miserable for the rest of our lives." She looks at him, her voice quiet, soft. "Perhaps now it's the other way around. Perhaps all this misery means we will indeed be happier from now on."

"I would like to believe that," he says, kissing her hair.

"God," she winces, curling up in his arms. "I am sorry, I--there are still cramps. Is there any camphor left?"

He inspects the bedside table. "Plenty."

She lets out a little laugh. "You are going to have to give me an enema. Do you know how?"

"Why, my lady, you would insult my pride as a buggerer?" he leers. "Of course I do."

"Now, stop that," she says. "And put the mask back on."

"Yes, mistress," he says, in a lisping sodomite's voice.

"Oh, God. They should arrest you."

"If making you laugh is a crime," he chuckles. "Laughter is good for the circulation. Do you need the enema now or would you take food first?" he asks as he ties the mask over his mouth. "You still look quite pale."

"I need it now. There is warm water by that brazier behind you."

"All right."

And so he tends to her, marvelling at how he can remain as neutral as a doctor as he does so. That he can look at her genitals without lust as he helps her wash them, that his prick does not stir as he administers the enema. And he can see, feel her gratitude, her astonishment at him doing so, she squeezing his hand as he fills her with the camphor solution. Even when she has to use the chamberpot, he helps her wash as if she were his own daughter, with nothing dirty or lascivious to it. And to think that but hours ago, he had dreamt of taking the arse he has just finished mopping, he laughs as he tosses the rags aside and washes his hands.

"What are you laughing at?" she mumbles, now groggy from the camphor.

He smirks at her over his shoulder. "I am glad you didn't see that thought."

"Come here," she says, beckoning weakly with her hand, gesturing for him to join her so that she can curl up in his arms again. "Never did I imagine a high-born husband would tend to his wife like this. Unless he was a doctor."

"I did study medicine for some years in Gundishapur. There were doctors in our family even before we embraced Islam."

She groans, even if her groan is interrupted by a yawn. "Is this what I am to hear for the rest of my life? Tales of how the Barmakids were great at everything?" She yawns once more. "Tell me, is there anything you utterly failed at? Something your family has always been terrible at?"

"Well," he laughs. "We have always been fools when it comes to love. Now, that is our family curse."

"I won't--" she yawns again. "I won't argue with that."

He caresses her hair, but at that he hears his own stomach growling. "Shall I ask Khalil to bring us some food?"

But now, Yassamin is fast asleep, snuffling against his chest, and he dares not awaken her. And come to think of it, he's not so hungry after all. He has everything he wants right here, right now, Love itself breathing softly against his heart.

Chapter Text

Isfahan

Four months later

***

The wedding feast itself, when it finally arrives, is an affair more modest than most had expected. That a Barmakid, the Grand Vizier himself should want to wed so far from the capital, in some caravanserai in faraway Isfahan? People shake their heads, click their tongues, feeling sorry for the humiliation the poor queen is now subjected to. It only fuels the rumours more: Fadl has exiled his brother for some reason or another, wants him out of the way. Jaffar, son of Yahya is a man disgraced, and as Fadl must want to be rid of the old queen, too, this marriage must be a political one. There is no other reason Fadl would have sent them down dusty roads to near-heathen lands, deprived them of all the pomp and ceremony the most powerful people in the empire would have otherwise been entitled to.

But Jaffar could not care less for pomp and ceremony, and Yassamin is but delighted at the idea. No elephants, no grand processions, no crowds, only them and their retinue. A little over a hundred servants and soldiers is plenty enough; they are enough to deck the Queen of Happiness out in flowers, to sweep and scrub its halls, to perfume them with incense.

"My God! I feel as if I should be paying you," the tavern-keeper exclaims as he unloads the supplies Jaffar has had brought in: the finest wines, meats, fruit money can buy.

Jaffar shakes his head. "The hospitality you have already paid us has been so vast it cannot be repaid in this life. Which is why I shall pay for the upkeep of The Queen of Happiness from now on, gladly."

The tavern-keeper looks around himself at the entire caravanserai complex, the square surrounded by three hundred bedrooms, brothels, shops, his own establishment modest in comparison. "Only a Barmakid could afford to," he laughs, but there is genuine awe in his voice.

"Send the owners my regards." Jaffar looks at the tavern-keeper up and down, his nostrils flaring a little. "Do not, however, mistake my generosity for licence. No overindulging in wine tonight. At least not until the bride and I have retreated to our chambers."

"I wouldn't dream of it, master," the tavern-keeper says, prostrating himself and kissing the floor at Jaffar's feet.

As soon as Jaffar steps out of the tavern, Ettabeh's litter arrives outside it. "Just the young man I am looking for!" she smiles, gesturing for him to join her.

"I have reserved you a suite near the garden, Mother; the best view in the entire place."

"As long as it's nowhere near your bedrooms," she laughs. "I still remember the days you took your slave girls in my house, you know. I could never tell if it was you or the girls screaming."

"Mother!"

"Yes; that exact pitch, I seem to recall." She hands him a heavy, gilt ointment jar. "Take this."

"I have enough perfumed creams to last me a lifetime. What would I do with another?"

"It's for her. She'll need it if she is to accommodate your... leanings," Ettabeh grins.

Jaffar thumps his forehead on the litter and groans.

***

Finally, finally the feast is over and Jaffar can take Yassamin in his arms. He lets out a long groan of happiness, hugging her until she lets out a little squeak.

He pulls back a little. "Am I hurting you?"

"It's a little too early for you to be asking that, isn't it?" she laughs nervously as she plays with his collar, then looks around herself, astonished. "But this is the same room I stayed in the last time! I thought--"

"They did have finer suites, but I only thought it appropriate."

"I am glad," she laughs.

And her laughter, her smile drives him mad from joy, mad: he lifts her off her feet and kisses her, spins her until they both fall on the bed tussling, laughing. He can't remember the last time he was this happy--it must have been another Jaffar, in another time, for he feels as if he were an entirely new man in her arms.

He holds her face in his hands and kisses her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, her mouth, adoring her; oh, he cannot contain his happiness. "Tell me, Yassamin, are you as happy as I am?"

"Happier," she teases, kissing his nose in turn.

He shakes his head. "Impossible. No one could be as happy as I."

"But I am!" she says and tickles him, tickles him until he howls, until she has turned him onto his back and straddled him. "Admit defeat."

He grabs her hands, his eyes wet from laughter. "If you promise to stop tickling me."

She chuckles onto his lips, rocking herself upon him. "I will, if you kiss me again."

He sighs in utter delight at her behaving this boldly with him, moans into her mouth as she rubs herself against him, he rolling his hips against her in turn. "Please, don't stop that," he murmurs onto her lips, feasting upon her mouth, upon the tartness of pomegranates, upon the sweetness of honeyed wine. He undoes her jacket and cups her breasts, fitting so perfectly into his palms, so wonderfully soft her flesh spills from between his fingers.

"As white as jasmine, as white as the moon," he murmurs, unable to stop hugging her against his body as they undress each other, as each new expanse of skin is revealed. He has to touch her skin all over with his, everywhere, in as many places as possible at once. Oh, he envies her clothes, for he wishes he would be able to wrap himself around her entirely the way they do; so many months has he spent without her touch, so many months.

She, too, makes up for lost time, caressing him all over as they lie face to face upon the bed, measuring him with the heat of her palms. She kisses his chest, tracing his breastbone with her fingertips.

"If you are looking for a way to reach into my chest and steal my heart, my lady, worry not: you have done so already."

"I was only counting your chest hairs," she laughs and kisses him. "Twelve."

He is a little embarrassed by this, squirming. "I'm sorry. Do you think me filthy? They are so few I sometimes tell the barber to ignore them."

At that, she lets out a lascivious chuckle--oh, the way that very sound makes blood pulse into his cock! She slides her hand to his freshly shaven groin. "You are clean where it counts, my love; that's enough for me."

"I am glad," he says, slipping his hand between her legs, marvelling at her smoothness, too, and oh, how wet his Yassamin is! She is hot, slippery against his fingers, moaning into his shoulder as he parts her folds and caresses her, wetting his fingers entirely before he drags them to the top of her slit, to the seat of her pleasure.

"Oh, Yassamin," he laughs. This, this is how much she wants him, her scent now filling the room with rich sweetness, filling his mouth with saliva. "Would you let me kiss you here?"

She tosses her head upon the sheets, gasping, stroking his cock in turn. "I--I--"

Whether she is stuttering from lust or shame, a little teasing never goes amiss, he thinks. "This little cunny has been wet for me all day, hasn't it?" he purrs, easing her gently onto her back so that he may rub at her and kiss her breasts at the same time, mouthing them greedily. Oh, but he can feel her cunny clenching, tightening underneath his hand as he bites and sucks at her nipples, as he squeezes her breasts a little. "It's all for me, Yassamin, isn't it?"

"It's yours," she gasps, daring to look into his eyes, laughing a little in disbelief. "I still can't believe this is happening," she says. "This should not be possible; this is too wonderful--" but her head falls back on the cushions as he rolls his hand on her cunny, the way he knows she loves. "We have died and we are in Paradise, are we not?"

He has to laugh, lick his fingers. "Whoever needs Paradise, if I am looking at it now?" he says, boldly offering his fingers to her, too, painting her lips with her sweetness. Taste how much you want me, he thinks, showing her, calling her to admit it, to let go of her shame.

Yet it is then that she bites his fingers. "My lady!" he cries out in shock, his cock pulsing a drop of arousal against her thigh.

"I am still practicing," she says, kissing the fingers she had bitten.

"Practicing what?"

"Becoming your harlot," she grins.

"Oh, my sweet," he shakes his head. "That will have to wait. You'll have to let me play the rake first," he says and glides down her body. He cannot wait any longer; her scent is driving him to distraction. Thus he spreads her thighs, reveals her cunny to the light of the lamps, of the setting sun; he could not think of a sight more beautiful. The wonderful, heavy white mound of her sex, the lips of it so full; the inner folds of it gleaming pink like some exquisite confectionery. Her sweet wetness like that of liquid sugar poured over--

"Jaffar. If you're about to say it's made of marzipan, I am going to kill you."

"It is," he moans and gives it a long lick, sucking the sweetness from her folds. "And since it is my possession, I am going to call it whatever I want, my child," he growls playfully, drawing his thumb to the top of her slit, just above the hood of her clitoris. "My little marzipan cunt." And he does not know whether it's that touch or his words that now make her moan and tremble so, make her hips shift underneath him, and he doesn't care; he laps up her sugar, huffing like an animal, sating his mouth with her. Yet he does not suck her clitoris, does not push a single finger inside of her, seeing how long she will last without begging for mercy.

"Please, Jaffar."

Ah, but a few seconds, then: yet it is too soon and he would play a little more. "Lift your legs; I want to see it," he groans, now rutting into the sheets. He wants to be inside of her so much, wants these plump lips to drag around his cock, wants to thrust into this wetness to make it even wetter, to make it drip down his sack. But he wants to wait, wants to make it good for her, wants to make it good for them both or he will never be able to forgive himself.

And he needs this, just as much as she does: he looks into her eyes, guiding her, making her display herself for him as boldly as a courtesan. Not to humiliate her, but to honour her, because in exposing herself, her desire to him in full he can reward it, show her how much he cherishes it. "I want to see all of you," he murmurs. "Show me, Yassamin. Show me your love; show me how much you want me."

"I want you so much," she moans, smearing her lip paint with her teeth. "Can't you see?"

"I can, now," he laughs, spreading the lips of her cunny with his thumbs. And oh, how red her clitoris is, a pomegranate red, so swollen, still like the littlest of pricks. "You know, I don't think I have ever seen a woman this aroused," he says, marvelling at her, and just as his heart skips a beat, so must hers, the way she now smiles, the way her belly dips. "You honour me, my lady," he says, reverent, soft, before he finally takes her clitoris in his mouth and sucks it, sucks.

And her thighs tremble as he pleasures her in this manner, sucking off her salt, her sweetness, moving his lips and his tongue to draw her pleasure from her. Her cunny drips down his chin, drips, takes two of his fingers easily, the walls of her flesh so smooth from their swelling he has never felt the like. "Yassamin," he has to moan, has to pull back to look at her, at the length of his fingers sinking into her.

But now one of her feet hits the mattress and she groans, for she has let go of her leg, taking her hand to the back of his head instead. "Please, don't stop. I'm so close; please don't deny me, my love, please don't deny me now."

And how could he do such a thing? Not with the way her cunny moves around his fingers, squeezing them, her muscles taking him with more force than he is using himself. So he sucks upon her clitoris once more and continues to take her, drawing his fingertips just to her opening, then pushing slowly deep inside of her, repeating the motion until she is shaking.

"Please, Jaffar," she whimpers through her teeth. "Not there. Higher, you know where; please."

"Here?" he says, innocently, massaging the soft spot behind her pubic bone that turns her whimper into a mewl. "Is this what your little cunny likes? Hmm?"

"Yes, yes, yes, it is, oh, God, it is. Please, don't stop, don't stop--"

And he swells with the pride of a true emperor, far greater a conqueror than the Caliph himself had been, possessing her so completely with the minutest of touches, the smallest. He but returns to sucking her slowly, holding all of his Yassamin at his fingertips, pressing into her, massaging that spot, higher, higher, and now she is trickling against his chin; he nearly spills upon the sheets from his joy. She clamps her thighs around his head but her screams still pierce his ears, shrill shrieks echoing off the walls as he keeps on pressing his fingers into her, curling them mercilessly with the entire force of his hand. She howls in shame as she hears the wet noises his hand is now making, yet he doesn't stop, forcing her to take it all, sucking and dragging every last tremor of her orgasm out of her.

"Please, stop," she finally says, taking his wrist. "You are hurting me."

"Victory," he chuckles as he lies down beside her, cupping her breast with his wet hand, letting her taste her own cunny from his tongue.

"You are a beast," she mumbles, yet wraps her arms and legs around him, sighing happily. "A complete and utter beast."

"A beast? Well, I could turn myself into a cheetah again, I suppose. Only my tongue would be a lot rougher. And as for the cheetah's prickly prick, well--"

She slaps him on his chest. "Stop it. You have maimed my cunny enough."

He laces his fingers with hers and looks into her eyes. "I could maim other parts," he says.

"Oh, God," she laughs nervously and casts down her eyes; yet she does not do so from horror and he knows it.

"There is still some shame in you," he says and caresses her hair. "Know that there would be no greater pleasure for me than to release you from that shame."

She kisses his fingers, her eyes warm with love, even if she is trembling a little against him. "And there would be no greater pleasure for me than to let you take it," she says. "Do you know--" she hesitates.

"Yes?" he caresses her cheek. "Tell me."

"You might think it foolish, but I think of you as the man who truly took my virginity," she murmurs, a little ashamed of her words. "And you are still taking it tonight," she whispers.

"But, my poor child!" he hugs her tight against himself. "That's not a foolish thing to say at all," he sighs, his heart aching for her, tears springing up in his eyes. "Do you know, I felt that way in your arms, too. The body never truly awakens unless awoken by love." He kisses her hair. "No, my love, there is nothing foolish in such a thought; I have felt it too. Why, when we first entered this room, I thought myself a new Jaffar, a young Jaffar, one who had never loved before."

"Be that as it may," she murmurs, nuzzling his face, "I would rather be taken by Jaffar the rake than an inexperienced boy."

"Oh, you shall have him."

She looks into his eyes now, her eyes flashing with lasciviousness. "And I haven't forgotten about the other things you promised, either. Did you bring the blue sash?"

"Oh," he laughs, his prick leaping against her thighs. "I most certainly did."

***

"There," he says, securing the knot to one of the bedposts. "Now you have no choice to be ashamed. You can blame it all on me," he chuckles as he kisses her. "Your wicked, cruel ravisher."

"I feel helpless already," she smirks with her head pillowed on her arms, tied as she is by the wrists, belly-down on the bed.

He kneels beside her and smacks her buttocks. "You've seen nothing yet," he says, smacking her again just to see that lovely, lovely flesh jiggling so wonderfully. "I should make you beg," he leers, purring in her ear. "Would you like that?" And oh, the way she squirms at that!

"As you can see, I am entirely at your mercies," she laughs.

And the way she says it, he has to take his cock in his hand and stroke it, hiss through his teeth in delight. "Don't be so sure any will be given," he says, but utterly fails at trying to make it sound like a threat. How on earth he hasn't come yet, he has no idea; all the better for a more stupendous climax later, of course, but if he tarries any longer, he worries he will cause himself damage. It would not do to pass out on his wedding night simply because all the blood in his brain had rushed into his groin, he reminds himself and lies down between her legs.

"Spread yourself a little, my love," he says. Gently, he guides her to lift her hips so that he can fold her legs against her sides. "Now, how does that feel?" he asks, kissing the small of her back.

"I feel like a frog," she laughs.

"But comfortable?"

"Yes," she says.

"Makes it easier for me to do this, you see," he says and cups her cunny in his hand.

"Oh--"

"I knew you wouldn't protest too much."

And he spends a long while stroking her, marvelling at her wetness, spreading it all over her cunny, the cleft of her buttocks, smearing it over her anus with the most gentle of touches. When he is satisfied, he kisses his way up her back, hugging her against himself, cupping her breasts in his hands.

"Do you like that?" he murmurs, kissing her over her shoulder.

And before she even answers, he can feel her cunny gliding against his cock, her inner muscles tightening with such intensity he can feel it even on the outside.

"To tell you the truth, I would feel a little more ravished," she says.

"Is that so?" he chuckles, lifting her hair up so that he can kiss her neck, so that he may feel her cunny painting his cock again. "And how would you like me to ravish you, my sweet?"

Of course, she stills; he had been expecting that. He can feel her heartbeat quickening as he caresses her chest, the pulse at her jugular. "I would quite like to hear it, my love," he murmurs. "What you truly want; what you have been wanting since you were but a girl." When she had been but a maiden in her father's garden, taking herself with her fingers, dreaming of this, this very night, when a man would finally give her this pleasure. "Remember how a magician brings something new into being, beloved. By imagining it, by speaking it."

She turns to look at him, smiling a little, her heart beating fast against his palm. "I would have you take me like a boy, my love," she murmurs onto his lips. And as she pulls back from the kiss, her eyes are drunk from her own boldness, her desire. "Take me like the old sodomite you are."

And he keens at that, moans into her mouth as he takes it over and over. He feels like a magical instrument in her hands, now, her djinni, her slave eager to make her wishes come true, and it is the most wonderful thing to feel. He slides his hands down her sides, kisses his way down her back. "To hear is to obey, my love."

And when his mouth reaches her arse, she gasps, but he needs this, needs to gift himself with this illicit, illicit pleasure. She has washed herself thoroughly, and he knows the glands of a female are much weaker than those of a male; yet in his greed, he still buries his tongue in her arse, seeking the last traces of her taste. For this act is an essential, inseparable part of his sodomy: not a boy leaves his bed without being tasted so. It's the taste around and inside the anus that he seeks, and here he is rewarded; her arousal having left a little wonderful must here, a trace of bitter salt there.

"Oh, Jaffar--"

As he can hear shame in that moan, he takes his hand to her cunny and rubs it. "What was that?" he traps her clitoris between two fingers. "Would you like me to stop?" he asks and dips his tongue into the soft folds of her anus, delicious.

"It tickles!" she laughs. "You shouldn't do it just for me."

"I'm not doing it for you, my love," he snarls and smacks her buttock. "This is my reward," he says and spreads her arse with his thumbs until the muscles gape a little, oh--the very sight makes his cock bob. "God, you taste so good, so good--" but he has to pause between licks, simply because he wants to enjoy the sight of her flesh opening for him, opening. His balls will soon burst, but he doesn't care: he rubs and rubs at the little bud of flesh, stretches the folds with the tips of his thumbs, marvelling at how this bud now unfolds for him like a little red flower. He spits on it, his cock bobbing again as she mewls in sinner's delight, chuckling as he can now push one thumb inside her with ease.

And from the way she trembles at that, her entire body tense like a bow, he wonders if he hasn't just pushed her close to climax.

"Is that how much you like it?" he laughs, pleased.

Her only answer is a wail.

"Then I think it's time I opened you properly," he says and smacks her arse once more.

He picks up the jar of ointment his mother had given him. It's the best of the best, of course, and he is not sure how she had known how to choose one that had just the right consistency for sodomy--nor does he want to know, he realises. The cream is thick, almost transparent, scented with honey; he scoops some up with his thumb and kisses her cunny. "I'm going to prepare you, now."

She wriggles in delight. "Go on."

And he keeps on kissing her cunny as he smears the cream onto her arse, the scent and the taste of honey rich, intoxicating as the cream turns liquid with the heat of their bodies. He wonders if this is one of the ointments the tomboys use, so well does it go with the sweetness of a cunny, Yassamin's now clenching against his mouth as he pushes one thumb inside her arse.

And now, she is no longer breathing, only trembling, trembling.

"Should I let you come?" he asks, casually, tugging at her arse with his thumb, adoring the tight heat of it, the way he can feel her cunny pulsing through it.

"Please, please, please, please," she whimpers, clutching at the sheets, tossing her hair aside. "Please let me."

For a moment, he thinks of denying her, but an orgasm should help her relax, make it easier for him to enter her. "Go on, then," he says softly, leaning in to suck her cunny as well as he can in this position.

And it only takes a few seconds, a few tugs of his thumb until she screams so loudly it frightens him--yet, at the same time, he realises half the caravanserai must have heard, and he is so proud of his little harlot, so proud. His jaw aches, but he keeps on sucking her, chuckling into her as she convulses upon the bed, tossing upon it, hopelessly taking herself with his mouth and his thumb. Never has he made a woman lose herself this way, and to think that he has not even entered her yet!

But, he thinks, it's about time he did something about that. Therefore, while she is still panting, still trembling upon the bed, he slickens his cock and covers her.

"Here I am, my love," he murmurs, guiding his cock to her arse. "Are you ready?"

"You're going to kill me," she wails.

"Was that a yes or a no?" he says, not quite managing a perfect chuckle as the muscles of her arse ripple around the head of his cock, delicious, perfect. But now he can see she is clutching the sheets again, the hair on her arms and her back standing on end. "Tell me to stop if I'm hurting you too much."

"No," she mumbles weakly. "I want you, I--" she squeezes her eyes shut, her hair a mess over her face. "Oh, God."

He brushes her hair aside and kisses her. "It will not hurt for long, I promise." And he dips into her mind and feels for her, feels for the pain, a pain familiar to him from experience. "Shall I help you?" he asks, rocking gently against her.

"Please," she whispers and closes her eyes.

And her mind overwhelms him as he now overwhelms her flesh: the hot and cold pleasure-pain rushes through his entire body, leaving gooseflesh in its wake. He feels what she feels, the prickle of pain-sweat, the horror, the ecstasy of being so taken, the sensation so unusual: like evacuating backwards, she thinks, and he laughs at that, having felt exactly the same when he had first been taken by a man.

"It's all right," he says, moving one of his hands to stroke her cunny. "It will feel better in a moment. Let me show you, let me show you," he murmurs.

And he shares his knowledge of that pain, shows her how to breathe, how to relax her arse, how to push its muscles out to accept a man. And he moves but slightly, the shortest of thrusts, and the blinding pleasure as the head of his cock pushes past the tightest muscles, the tightest, clutching his sweetest, sweetest part so exquisitely--

"Yassamin," he gasps against her back. He loves her so much, so much and he shows her that, too, hugging her against himself, kissing her and kissing her.

"Jaffar, God--" she groans, still in a little pain, but as she moves, he can now feel the pleasure as it starts to flood her hips, seeping into her from where he enters her like waves of molten gold. And that gold spreads inside of her, swirls inside of her; her cunny awakens under his hand, moans bursting from her mouth each time he moves his hips.

"Better?" he chuckles over her shoulder, rubbing her cunny lazily, light-headed from the way her arse is now squeezing him.

"Yes!" she laughs back onto his lips, kissing him clumsily so that their teeth clash.

He dares roll his hips a little, earning a deep cry of surprise from her. "I told you."

"I like the way your love feels, too," she says, sighing happily against him. "Don't stop with that either."

"As if I ever could!" he laughs.

And he lets himself sink into her, shows her the wonder of her flesh around him, the tenderness in his heart as he feels the pulse of the great vein along her spine, her life itself rushing around his cock. The sweetness of her cunny, the taste of it still sugaring his lips, the softness of her buttocks against his hips. And how his chest expands, constricts, his heart aching sweetly, endlessly in its love for her, the way his lungs now spasm with a sob, the way his love fills his eyes with tears. "Yassamin," he breathes, his very world condensed to a single point upon this bed, now, but the two of them joined, and he does not want this to end ever, ever.

But I want you to have your end in me, she murmurs to him within his mind, and he can feel her smirk. And with her thoughts, she caresses his balls, so high, so tight; with invisible fingers, an invisible mouth she takes his arse, sucks upon his sack. Oh, he could never have thought of her like this, never--and within his mind, she but laughs. Your whore, remember?

"And that's why I love you," he moans as he tugs upon the sash and releases her hands. "Come with me, oh, Yassamin. Please touch yourself; please come with me."

Her only answer is a moan, and as soon as she has slipped her hands to her cunny, he presses her into the bed and lets go. He shouts, pounding into her, truly ravishing her now, her screams punctuating his; they can no longer hear each other's thoughts because none remain, all washed away by her ecstasy flooding through him. Her waves pull at him, drag him down a maelstrom and with a high, desperate cry he shoots himself into her, in bursts of sperm, convulsions of pleasure that seem neverending. He laughs, laughs as he comes as she does, a woman's climax of a thousand colours, ripples, cascades of light; his hips jerking as he feels the contractions of her womb as his own.

For a long while, he undulates with her, laughing with her; it's only when they both hurt too much to go on that they collapse upon the bed, panting.

"Jaffar?"

"Mmm?"

"I'm cold."

"Mmm." He pulls the bedcovers over them.

She turns around under the blanket, her cunny and her arse making the most delightful sticky noises as she slips free of him.

"Jaffar."

"What?" he mumbles. Oh, Merciful God; she wants more. But right now, he is so tired, so exhausted. "I have just had the most amazing sex in my entire life," he slurs, not opening his eyes. "I am allowed to feel a little spent."

"Very well, then," she says, and to his surprise, she does not sound disappointed, although there is something in her voice that makes him a little wary. He creaks one eye open, but she has left the bed, and he cannot keep his eye open for much longer--oh, he really is so very tired.

Yet, in but moments, he wakes up to something ice-cold splashing onto his face and lets out a most undignified shriek.

He pulls the wet towel from his face and spits. "You little--"

"Time for a wash," she grins and drags him out of bed.

***

She pushes him down onto one of the stone benches lining the bathroom wall and tugs on a chain attached to the ceiling. He yelps as the fountain above him opens, spewing cold, then warm water over him.

"I'm sorry," she laughs.

"You're not sorry at all," he says, slicking back his hair, spitting water out of his mouth. "Come here, you little minx," he murmurs, pulling her close so that he can kiss her belly.

But she seems to want her share of the warm water, too, sitting in his lap, wrapping her arms and her legs around him, kissing his mouth underneath the spray. "I could get used to bathing like this," she says between kisses.

"You forgot the soap and the sponge," he mumbles.

"I will get them in a moment," she says, sighing happily as she rests in his arms. "Would you like me to wash you?"

He stretches luxuriously and grins. "Now, how could I say no to that?"

She kisses his nose. "A moment."

Yet by the time she returns with the soap and the sponge, she seems to have changed her mind: she stands between his legs and starts to wash herself first. Never taking her eyes off him, she soaps her breasts, her belly, her thighs, lets him help her wash her back. And he adores her for it, loves her for it, that she displays herself for him like this, so much of her shame now dead and gone. He wipes the suds off her skin with the sponge, with his hands, fancying that he is now washing off the rest of her shame, washing away everything that is not Yassamin the lover.

And in turn, she washes him with a tenderness he has not felt since--oh, he must not have felt this since his nurses in the harem when he was but a babe, his mind now flickering with memories of their soaps and perfumes, the women's soft hands and bodies. And the bitterness he had felt at the men's bathhouse door ever since he had been old enough to be taken there instead, being exiled from that magical realm of women, their gentle touch.

And by the time she starts to wash his hair with tender, loving hands, he but leans his head against her belly, sighing in complete contentment. "I love you so much."

"And I love you, my sweet Jaffar," she says, kneeling between his legs, dropping a kiss on his thigh. "Would you let me wash you down here, too?"

"I was wondering when you would get there," he chuckles and kisses her mouth; as she drags the sponge to his cock, it immediately pulses against it, already half-hard.

"Spread your legs, then", she smirks.

"But I am."

"Wider."

She beckons for him to lift his feet onto the bench, too, so that he sits spreadeagled, folded in half, his legs and his hips thrust out of the shower while the rest of him still lies underneath the spray.

***
(Doodle illustrating Jaffar's cramped position.)

***

"I am not about to give birth!" he sputters, spitting out water. "This is ridiculous."

"Says the man who but moments ago made me squat like a frog," she laughs and trickles water from the sponge onto his perineum, letting it flow sweetly down to his arse. Oh, but that feels wonderful, so wonderful his arse clenches and clenches under the little stream.

"Oh--"

"There. Are you complaining?" she asks coquettishly.

"Oh, I am not," he moans, lowering his head so as not to get water in his mouth. "Please, continue."

But she abandons his arse and proceeds to soap his genitals instead, soon discarding bar and sponge and massaging the foam into his skin with her hands. Oh, this most definitely beats a bath-eunuch! And her hands are getting more and more skilled every time she touches him, now, becoming bolder in their strokes, gliding over his hardening cock with just the sort of pressure he likes.

He shakes his head, spraying water all over. "You truly are the ravisher now, my lady."

"And you no longer seem as tired, my lord. Good, because don't for a moment think I am going to spend my wedding night without this in my cunny," she says, stroking the last of the soap off his cock.

"I am not protesting," he grins. "Please, feel free to have your wicked way with me."

His skin is a little dry, now, so her hand doesn't feel as pleasant, but how could he tell her to stop? Yet as soon has he has thought of it, she stills. "I should make sure I have washed off all the soap," she murmurs, almost absent-mindedly, and takes his cock in her mouth. And oh, God, oh, God: her face as she does so, the way she looks straight into his eyes as she slickens him with her mouth--he lets out a trembling moan and has to stroke her hair with his hands, shaking as he watches her, as she flicks her tongue--

"Yassamin," he gasps, trying so very hard not to thrust, so as not to choke her. Thankfully, it's not easy in this position: he is truly at her mercies, now, trapped between the sweetness of her mouth and the hard stone of the tiles, his head spinning from how good it feels. They have been in the bath for so long it's no wonder he feels light-headed; he had better not faint, now, had better not fall off the bench.

But it is not an easy task, no. Not with the way she looks up at him as she sucks him, caressing his sack, his arse; the way she smiles around his cock, the rare woman who truly loves pleasuring a man in this manner. He could stare forever into her eyes, eyes that always remind him of honey, amber, liquor; yet they are sweeter, more magical and more intoxicating than all three of these combined. Oh, no wonder her father had kept her locked up, unmarried for so long: she is a treasure, a magical treasure, one that fulfills all wishes.

She pulls back for breath and leans her head on his thigh, still stroking his cock with her hand. "I'm flattered."

"I am not flattering you," he murmurs, groaning as he leans back too fast and hits his head on the tiles. But the pain returns him to his senses a little, helps him remember that this is real, that this is not a dream of Paradise. "I am telling you the truth. You know I am a sorcerer; I am not a stranger to miracles. But you, Yassamin of Basra..." he murmurs, "you surpass them all."

"Now, don't blaspheme," she scolds him, but playfully. "Only God allows miracles to happen. I am but His servant-girl."

"I am glad you have regained your faith, then," he says, caressing her cheek.

"Or then I am worshipping a heathen god," she laughs. "I'm sure what I am about to do is quite forbidden, yet I would sin for you."

"And which sin might that be, my love?" he asks.

She does not answer in words, but leans down and softly, hesitantly presses her lips to his arse. And when she flicks her tongue out, he cannot help but howl; no one has done this to him in years. It's usually an act only the greediest of penetrating sodomites performs, and unlike Fadl, Jaffar hasn't had the heart to force a slave to perform it upon him. And Masrur, the only man he had trusted to penetrate him, had found it repulsive; he has gone without for so long that he had forgotten, he had forgotten, oh--

She pauses, a little alarmed. "I'm sorry. Does that tickle?"

"Tickle?!" he pants. "Please, please, don't stop. I will show you."

"All right," she murmurs and licks him once more, now looking at his arse instead of his face, and he does not know which he finds more arousing: the shocks, the lashes of wet, slick pleasure her tongue now brings or the sight of her spreading him, inspecting him, tasting him as if he were a delicacy. Oh, but she knows how to make him feel like a boy, a boy about to be taken; if only she had a prick--he must think of a spell--

She bursts into laughter against his arse. "I must say I would find that an interesting experiment."

"Oh, God, Yassamin," he laughs. "Do that again. Now, can you feel it?"

She leans down and licks him again, humming, and as he sends the sensation to her, the way her chuckles, the ripples of her voice feel in his arse, she moans even louder. That is unfair! he can hear her thinking. Is this truly how good it feels for a man? I only felt a tickle when he did this to me. But this is like-- and she thinks of her cunny, of the way she feels when he licks her there, and for a moment, he feels as if he does have a cunny, pulsing and clenching against her tongue. And at this vision, he has to grab her head for balance, shouting so loudly it echoes off the tiles.

"Oh, but you must stop," he groans, even if he doesn't want her to ever stop. His cock is heavy, fat on his belly, his balls so tight, and if it weren't for the water, he would have made a mess by now. Yet now, each drop, each spray feels like too much, making him jerk from being so overly sensitised; his arousal so high his cock pulses from each one of her licks. "Please, Yassamin, please! You must stop if you still want this in your cunny, I am begging you," and his cock jerks, leaps; he has to use all of his powers of concentration to stop himself from coming there and then.

But then she is in his lap, so wet, so hot and so aroused she can take him in her cunny easily, all the way to the root by the time she has wrapped her legs around his waist.

His feet splash against the floor and he hugs her tight against himself, groaning into her shoulder, rocking her in his arms. "Oh, my love!" he laughs.

"There. Far less sinful a pleasure," she kisses onto his lips and rocks her hips. "To think that I am making love to my husband, my husband--" she says, pulling back and shaking her head.

She looks as if she is going to cry, so he kisses her, runs his hands up and down her back, moving her gently upon his cock. "And to think that you are my wife," he whispers between kisses, so happy he fears he will soon lose his mind, become a howling madman forever. "God be praised," he murmurs against her mouth in benediction.

She sniffs back tears. "What I am doing is still a little sinful, however," she says, squeezing his cock with her cunny.

"I certainly don't hold it against you," he groans, his eyes fluttering shut from pleasure.

"Oh, but I would have you take me in a manner more befitting a husband," she says, caressing his hair with a smile. "After all these unlawful pleasures, it's the least we could do."

"If I didn't fear slipping, I would carry you to bed," he says and smacks her arse. "Dry us, then, little harlot, and I shall make an honourable woman out of you."

And as soon as her back touches the bed, he is inside her. He loves the way her laughter feels against his chest, around his cock as he pushes into her, nudging her further and further up on the bed until they lie comfortably in the middle of it.

"Now," he says, taking one of her legs over his shoulder, then the other; "is this what you wanted, wife?"

"It is," she moans as he lies down on top of her with all his weight and begins to roll his hips, "it is, husband."

And she keeps on repeating it, whispering "husband" onto his lips, between each one of his thrusts, making him drunk from happiness. "Wife," he moans back into her mouth, delirious from her flesh, from her words, from the love radiating from her. He does not even have to peek inside her mind to feel it, for she wraps herself around him, warm, glowing, cocooning him within herself; gladly, gladly does he allow himself to be taken. He does not want it to be over, withholding his own release even as she comes undone underneath him, so soon, laughing ecstatically into his mouth.

"I love the way you kiss me when you take me," she explains as he keeps on moving within her, her laughter broken into moans by the length and depth of his thrusts.

"I noticed," he grins and kisses her again. "I must remember that." That a woman should love him so much that she would come from but his kiss, not having even touched her clitoris--oh, again she makes his heart swell. To think that a woman even enjoyed being kissed by him! All those slave girls that had looked upon his teeth in horror because they were crooked, even if he used the miswak-stick regularly, freshened his mouth with mint--

"I love your teeth, and I would you bit me with them," she whispers.

He stills for a while, panting, balancing himself on his hands. "I bite hard when I come, my lady." But oh, the way her cunny clenches at that, the way she moans at that, drawing a moan from him in turn--

"Prove it to me, son of Yahya," she says, her eyes flashing a bacchante's as she draws her fingernails up his back; now, it's his cock that's pulsing, his sack that is drawn so tight that oh, God, if she continues, he will either come or he will die; he is not sure which.

"Do that again," he moans, and as she does, he sends to her the sensation, the blue-white whiplash of pleasure her nails send down his body, her nipples crinkling as his do, the entirety of her shivering as he does.

"Oh," she laughs, rich and wicked, dragging her nails up his back once more, wrapping her legs around his waist, her pupils wide from need. "Take me, Jaffar. Take me."

But she doesn't have to tell him to. He is close, now, so close, huffing, struggling for balance because the sensation of her nails makes him want to spread his legs more. For the line of white heat sparkles, ripples from his spine to his arse, licks at his perineum, his sack, and soon, soon its pulses will make all of himself shoot out of his cock, oh, oh--

And it is at that that she starts to claw at him, furious, no rhythm to her hands any longer: she tears at his shoulders, scratching him all over, ululating from how hard he is pounding into her. And he gives her what she needs, gives her a bite for each scratch, harder, harder until he has covered her neck, shoulders and breasts with red marks. For but a second, two, he pauses when he is inside her to the hilt, just to feel if her cunny clenches as he bites her and it does, it does, fluttering, dripping down his balls.

Her screams deafen his ears, yet that but urges him to take her harder, harder until he buries his teeth where her neck meets her shoulder, biting down with such force he thinks he's drawing blood. For now, the blue and the white surge out of him as sperm, his hips beating into her loudly, slapping, slamming into her, wet with spit and sap and sweat. And now, she screams her own release into his ears, convulsing underneath him so violently it is as if he is slaying her.

But these are not death throes, no, no: even as the force of his release blinds him, he can hear her pouring into his ears, into his mind, glittering, iridescent, her ecstasy sweeping through him in turn. He soothes the bites he has made with his lips; marvel of marvels, at each one of his kisses an aftershock of orgasm shakes her body still, makes her cunny squeeze around his cock, milking the last drops of his sperm out of him.

He falls upon her lifeless, falls into her, and for a long moment, he feels no separation from her, both of them existing as but a sea of white emptiness, bliss.

It is she who emerges from that sea first, curling up in his arms, quiet for a long while before she speaks.

"Thank you," she murmurs.

He has to open his eyes to look into hers. They are drunk and drowsy from the pleasure he has given her, the happiness he has given her. There she lies: his Yassamin, a living Paradise nourished by the wellspring of his love, warm and blissful in his arms.

"I hope you don't feel too decent, wife," he says, nuzzling her cheek, his heart aching from joy.

"Thoroughly debauched, husband," she says and laces her fingers with his. "And very well loved."

"Hearing you say that makes me the happiest man in the world," he murmurs and gathers her against his heart.

***

Isfahan

Six years later

***

"Saïda!" Yassamin calls out. "Come back this instant! We'll be late!"

But Saïda isn't listening. Just as she is about to run out, Jaffar appears in the doorway and lifts his daughter up with a mighty cry, spinning her and spinning her until she starts squealing.

"What's the matter, heart's delight?" he asks, kissing Saïda until she squirms so that he has to put her down. "What's the matter?"

"Father, I'm hungry."

"Well, then." He makes a show of patting his sash. "I am sure I have some dried dates here, somewhere."

Yassamin shakes her head. "She is old enough to learn how to fast. She will never learn self-discipline if you insist on spoiling her." She snatches the date Jaffar is holding out to Saïda. "After the prayers."

Jaffar snatches back the date, then hands it to Saïda with another. "Go and fetch your brother, and give him this. Now, run along."

Yassamin rolls her eyes, yet cannot help but lean against Jaffar's chest as he takes her in his arms. "You must think I have become a terrible old harridan," she groans.

"Nonsense," he says and kisses her hair. "It's all this abstaining. Tomorrow, you'll be back to your old laughing, lustful, sinful self," he chuckles. "Just how I like you."

"Mmm." She pokes his ribs. "You still spoil them, however."

"Can you blame me?" he laughs.

"I suppose someone has to," she murmurs, a little ashamed. "I'm sorry. You are right; she is a little too young to fast."

"Perhaps next year. God desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you," he recites. "But, my sweet, why are you weeping?"

"Gratitude, my love, gratitude," she says, wiping her eyes. Ramadan always renders her like this; quick to tears, but often happy tears. "Do you think God will have forgiven me for ever having doubted His grace?"

Jaffar hugs her close. "Look around you. It seems like it, does it not?"

"It does," she sighs, smiles against his chest. "To think that a sinner such as you restored my faith."

"And these are no mere alms, either," he murmurs. "God has given us riches greater than those of kings."

"The alms!" she exclaims, her eyes wide. "I forgot to tell the servants to load the asses with the alms!" she moans. "The shame if they arrive late--"

"All taken care of," he says, taking her by the shoulders. "They're already on their way to the mosque. I made sure to count and seal each bag personally before they left."

She shakes her head. "Oh, Barmakid. Once an accountant, always an accountant."

"With a reputation of generosity to maintain," he grins. "I shall promise to live up to the other sort of reputation tomorrow." He takes a step back and looks at her up and down, smiling. "Come, wife. Let us go pray and thank the Almighty for what we have been given."

"For the Lord is merciful and clement indeed," she whispers and squeezes his hand, her heart light from joy.

***

END

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