As a jinn, I am used to being in control, master not only of all the elemental powers of the earth but of my own fate as well. And I was—until the night I was tricked and ensnared by an ambitious young nobleman too beautiful for even me to resist.
I gained awareness slowly, as a hundred blankets had been wound around me and were being slowly removed. I heard a voice, and the voice was laughing. “Ha ha, old fellow, you’re a lamp after all!” it said.
The voice was deep and liquid, and somehow it slid inside me before I was even aware of it, settling in the very center of my being as if it belonged there by right. It was attractive, its timber seductive, and I wanted to hear more—even though its sloppy, slurred consonants and giddy undertow warned me that the owner of the voice was quite intoxicated, and would no doubt soon be saying even sillier things than a cheery greeting to a lamp.
A lamp. Stars and shadows, was there any chance? Could it be any lamp but my lamp—the lamp to which Esagil had bound me with his dying breath—the lamp that enslaved my powers to whoever owned and lit it?
Baladan was dead—of that I had no doubt, and Esagil too. But the lamp was guarded by spells of protection inscribed on its every surface, wound through the enchantment that enslaved me. It would have survived the fire… and then anyone could have picked it up. Anyone…
“Oh yes you are,” the voice continued. “Wait until the curator finds out I’ve used a lamp… as a lamp!” The voice then erupted into a fit of giggles. He began a little sing-song to himself. “A lamp as a lamp, as a lamp as a lamp…” This was followed by more giggles, and then a loud thump and an accompanying “Oof!” from the voice—evidently the voice’s owner, whoever he was, had sat down, or fallen down, rather harder than he’d intended.
Other senses were returning to me, slowly. I was in a wide, cool, musty chamber. Underground, I thought, though there were smells I did not recognize. Most of the space was completely dark except for a wide nimbus of light cast by the flame of a finely wrought, heavily engraved bronze oil lamp—one I could not help but recognize with a sinking feeling deep within. It was wide and flat, larger than most, a perfect circle as seen from above apart from a small finger-ring at one azimuth and, directly opposite, the short but elegant neck from which erupted the dancing flame that was this underworld’s only illumination.
The lamp stood on a flat-topped basalt column or stele roughly cylindrical in shape and perhaps chest high. It, too, was inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform, but I saw quickly that unlike the lamp its engraved words were neither magical nor important, at least to me: they told the inflated story of a jumped-up Harranian merchant who claimed to have introduced ivory to Assyria a thousand years before my time. I ignored the stele and focused on the lamp. The flame was completely still: there was no movement of air in this room, no passage to the outside. I caught the scent of the oil it was burning, but it wasn’t the linseed oil from blueflower flax I was accustomed to, or anything else I immediately recognized. There was something odd about the wick, too. The idea was growing in me that I might have slept longer than I thought… I might not even be in Babylon anymore, or anywhere between the rivers for that matter. Though I understood his silly words as I did all human language, the man I had heard as I had awoken spoke no tongue I had ever heard before, nor was it like any speech I knew.
I began to grow afraid.
A low moan issued from somewhere beyond the stele. Another moan followed it, and the voice whined, “Unnnngghh, I am so royally fucked.” I frowned. Me more than you, friend, I thought.
I was now more aware of the sensations of my body. I looked down and saw, thank the shadows, that my physical form was not monstrously charred by the fire I had so desperately loosed in Baladan’s bedchamber. In fact I looked quite like I always did, wreathed in the masculine, pleasing shape that always earned me wandering eyes, reddened cheeks, and salacious leers, according the character and inclinations of the observer. I was attired only in loose linen pantaloons like the ones I had worn when I had gone to Baladan, intent on—but no. It was humiliating to think of the hold Baladan’s false beauty had had on me.
I brushed my jawline with finger and thumb, and startlingly found it clean-shaven. This must have been one of Baladan’s dictates. I always wore a carefully trimmed beard (the dark hair above and along my jaw having always contrasted appealingly with my sun-burnished skin and sunset-red eyes), but Baladan kept the chins of his fuck-slaves shaved as smooth as his own backside. I remembered feeling his lips’ caress along my unbearded jaw and knew he had not only enslaved me but demeaned me further, using the same magic that had bound me to strip my face clean of what I had put there by my own will. Anger welled up in me at this liberty taken with my form, and, worse than that, at what it had meant to Baladan. My only solace was that even after he had tricked me and sought to make me his undying servant, Baladan was dead, and by my hand.
As I lowered my hand I saw a bracelet on my wrist I did not recognize: a thin, inch-wide brazen cuff, as snug against my wrist as if it had been painted on, inscribed all around with the same kind of tiny engraved spells as festooned the lamp. The contract of my confinement, I thought darkly, one that even I, a jinn with mastery over the very forces of the wild, primeval earth, would never be able to break. I lifted my other wrist to inspect it, but it was bare of ornament. A single cuff, then, marked what I had become. It might as well have been leaden chains.
Another moan issued from wherever the drunken speaker of silly words sat or lay beyond the stele. I drew in a deep breath, tasting the stale air of this underground place. I would not despair. Even if this man was my new master, my status had still improved: he could not be a creature of evil such as he who had captured me. Anyone was better than Baladan.
Nonetheless it was not without trepidation that I unrooted my feet from where I had found myself, and began taking slow, hesitant steps toward the only other person present in this space. I skirted around the stele that held the lamp and stopped, unsure whether to laugh or cry.
Sitting on the ground, slumped blearily against one of the dozens of wooden crates of various sized that littered the extensive chamber, was a sandy-haired man of maybe thirty summers, with a kind, handsome face and a well-proportioned and naturally strong-looking body, for all that he had felled it with whatever liquor they favored here. A bottle of some kind, no doubt the source of the offending spirits, lay on its side near one of his hands, fortunately empty. He was wearing very odd clothes: his white blouse was close-fitting and stiff, no doubt very uncomfortable, with some sort of decorative sea-green sash bound in a knot so closely around his neck that I thought it might be choking him. Below were dark, similarly close-fitting trousers, and over the stiff blouse a thin jacket of similar color. His shoes were black and shiny, with soft leather on top and hardened hide on the bottom. I shook my head in amazement. How could he bear to trap his feet in such things?
Lifting my eyes I saw that he was not passed out, as I had suspected. Green eyes stared up at me in untrammeled amazement.
“The fuck are you?” he slurred. “You’re hot as fuck.”
The rude compliment, if I understood it correctly, was nice, gratifyingly mirroring my appreciation for his well-made body and pleasing face. His uncensored reaction also seemed like a good sign that his attraction for me might be a useful factor in our relationship. But the equally brusque question made me quail slightly, because I felt compulsion within me, and with a sinking heart I understood that my constraints included obedience not only to commands but to questions, also. I must answer honestly anything he asked, even if, as now, the nature of the question could only barely be deciphered.
Those bright green eyes, almost like emeralds, seemed fixed on me, as if he had never seen anything quite like what stood before him. Probably he had not. I decided a name was sufficient answer. “I am called Da’ummatim,” I said, giving him the name I used when I walked among men and some kind of name was needed.
His eyes widened. “He of the darkness,” the man whispered. My own eyebrows lifted in surprise. This man’s language and appearance was so different from what I had left behind in Babylon that I was certain I was in some distant land, and possibly a distant time as well—certainly I had the impression of having slept long, though I remembered nothing of the intervening… years? Centuries? I looked around and in the dim light of the lamp I saw that while one side of the room was indeed mostly crates, behind me were tables and shelves lined with dozens and dozens of figurines, bricks, broken tablets, and other detritus of civilizations past. Many were of a kind I recognized, and most were marked in some way like the stele with cuneiform mundanities from various times and places.
I turned back toward the drunken man. He was sitting up, now, away from the wooden crate he’d been slumped against, and was staring at me something like fascination.
“You are a scholar,” I said, and let him know with my tone that I was impressed by this fact.
He nodded. The drunken man’s eyes flitted down my half-naked form, catching on the engraved cuff adorning my right wrist. His gaze jumped suddenly to the burning, similarly inscribed lamp beside me on the stele, and when it returned to me I saw understanding in his emerald eyes. Even intoxicated, this man’s mind was not to be underestimated. “I am a scholar,” he said, acknowledging my words. Then, very deliberately, he asked, “What are you?”
My human stomach twisted. There was no avoiding this question, and no hedging with half-truths and evasions, either. My bindings compelled me to answer with simple honesty.
With a sigh, I said, “I am… a jinn.”
The drunken man smiled the widest smile I had ever seen in my long life, and I felt fear return to me. He was beautiful when he smiled, and I felt a powerful reaction well up in me that had nothing to do with the hold he had over me. My heart-pounding response to his beauty scared me almost as much as his gleeful response to what I was.
I had told myself that any master was better than the would-be despot and destroyer who had ensnared me and caused me to be bound to his will. But could any man, even a man with a kind face and curious mind, resist the temptations offered by having me at his command?
I was about to find out.
I ached to shift. I longed to cast aside this human form, to flee this captivity and the strange world I had come to. But I could not. All of the elemental magic of my kind was within me still, unalienable from my nature, yet I was not its master. I could do all things my will had once commanded… only it was not longer my volition that mattered.
I held my master’s emerald gaze. We were measuring each other, he and I. Though he was not Chaldean there was no doubt, from what he had said and what lay about me, that he was versed in Chaldean lore. Lore that whispered of the inhuman powers wielded by the jinns who prowled the world as shadows or masked as humans. Lore that recorded the vain blusters of generations of Marduk’s priests that the patron god of Babylon was stronger than were we, that Marduk could, through them, bind to a human master any jinn that threatened the peace and dominion of that great city, Babylon.
The trappings of my enslavement—my slave’s cuff, my appearance on his lighting of the lamp—were easy enough for an informed and quick-minded man to reason out, even, it seemed, one impaired by the noxious spirits once contained in that empty bottle beside him. More than that, my admission that I was a jinn told him all, because they were an admission and he knew it, not a boast. With four words in his tongue I had exposed to him all my anguish and fear that the powers of my kind were no longer mine to spend.
I assured myself that at least he did not know that my binding to him was laced with a mounting, carnal desire stirred by his handsome face and well-made form. He would never know that, I resolved. That the secret would be revealed to him should he but ask was not a thought I could bear. I would never give him occasion to ask. I would be cold and hostile, letting slip no outward sign of the cravings I knew I would come to feel in the company of such masculine beauty.
I had made myself vulnerable to beauty before, and lost everything. I would not do so a second time.
In that moment my overriding impulse was to mitigate the catastrophe of my enslavement to a shrewd an ambitious stranger of unknown temperament and morals by preemptively instilling in my master an abiding sense of awe at who I was and what I could do. I schooled my handsome Chaldean face to show ferocity and adamantine determination, shunting aside betraying thoughts of my enslaving cuff, which would give the lie to anything I said, and my smooth cheeks, which marked me as a prince’s butt-boy. “Hear me, mortal—” I began sternly, but to my dismay he spoke calmly over me, and I found myself wanting to hear what he had to say—not because he commanded it, but because his deep and sultry voice slid into me and wound its way through my innards like a snake. I wanted to hear him speak, and my own words died on my beardless lips.
“There are many legends of the jinn,” he said, his tone confident and informed. I wondered if he was also a pedagogue in the manner of the Athenians, guiding youths toward knowledge, alongside his solitary studies of these relics of what was apparently now a long-dead world. His excitement and coursing blood—my jinn senses could feel his rapidly pattering heartbeat—had already burned off much of his inebriation, and though he still slumped against the wooden crate as if not ready to try controlling his limbs his voice was clear and his words were measured. “They don’t all agree, of course, and these days they’ve been contaminated in popular culture by later folklore and outright fiction. But there’s one legend in particular…” He broke off, eyeing first me, then my cuff, then the still-burning lamp casting warm light and the odor of a strange oil into this confined space, before returning his gaze to me. He licked his lips. “The markings on the lamp are Old Akkadian cuneiform as used in the Neo-Babylonian period,” he stated. Then he asked, “You are from Babylon?”
I hesitated, not because I had any ability to withhold an answer but because his question was ambiguous. Human words were like shifting sands, I had often reflected: the same grains were easily moved by circumstance into entirely different configurations. There was a reason Esagil’s spells of binding were so long and so involved, and the inscriptions on the lamp so detailed and intricate, looping around each other in sense as much as in epigraphy, making a fine mesh of unbreakable steel. I was becoming aware, however, that my master’s language was even more plastic than the ancient tongue of old Akkad.
I decided that his question, in the context of his reference to the lamp, was not requiring me to speak of my ultimate origins, which I was loath to do with any mortal. “My last memories are of Babylon,” I said at last.
My master nodded. I was confirming suppositions of which he had little doubt. He still did not move from his undignified, recumbent position, not even shifting his legs or arms, and this seemed to me to be a power ploy. I had seen many lords and princes act the same, informing the subject of an interview or an interrogation that there was no need to gather their dignity merely for the likes of them. I considered this, unsure whether this man was so calculating. Shrewd he was, there was doubting that; but his other attributes, and what threat they posed to me and to the unknown world around us, I had yet to learn.
He narrowed his gaze. I found myself drawn to those emerald eyes. They were warmed by the lamplight as if kindled to some internal potency. “Who was king?” he asked.
This question brought memories of Esagil’s promise to enslave me to Babylon’s ruler, and I could not suppress a frown. “Nabuna’id of Harran,” I said flatly. It was not the formal royal styling the king preferred, which emphasized his fictional connections to the defeated Assyrian emperors and to Marduk over his true and humble origins far from Chaldean lands. Most in the streets of Babylon referred to him as “the Harranian,” though of course not in the hearing of any noble, priest, or factor.
My master blinked, perhaps taking a second to process the name. When he did, his sandy brows lifted. “Nabonidus!” he said. A sweet smile spread my master’s lips, and I felt an unaccountable desire to cause that smile to reappear whenever possible. “It is true. You are the one the tablet spoke of.” I wanted to drown in that smile, so I deflected traitorous thoughts of my master’s beauty to the name he had given. Though I didn’t know it, sounded somewhat like the way the Greeks might say the king’s name. Perhaps I was now among the descendants of the Greeks—though this man, I mused, looked like no Greek I had known. If anything, his creamy skin, straight nose, sand-colored hair, and wide shoulders marked him a sturdy son of mighty Celtic warriors from the barbarian inlands far beyond the world of the Greeks.
Finally he shifted his strangely encased feet until they were flat on the surface of whatever insular, underground space we were in. It was not brick or earth, but was rather hard, gray, and smooth; my guess was painted cement or concrete, both widely used in major constructions in the many cities I had known. My master looked around briefly, then extended his hand toward me. “Help me up,” he commanded. It sounded like the request any drunken fool might make of a friend with his feet under him, but it was not. He required this of me, and I moved forward to obey.
Firmly I grasped his wrist, giving him an opportunity to take hold of mine. I hauled him to his feet. It was easy enough for me—though my physical body was human I had crafted it with strength and grace as well as allure—but still I could measure his weight with that pull. Despite being thinner at the waist than even I was he was heavier than he appeared, and my mouth dried at the thought of the dense muscle that might be revealed were he to shed his bizarre local costume and stand, naked, before me.
He settled on his feet, more or less steady. Unexpectedly he came out a whole hand’s breadth taller than my human form, itself designed to have a slight edge in height over my Chaldean conquests. We were close, very close, and I was momentary bewitched by his intoxicating scent. Sandalwood, loam, alcohol, and sweat. I moved to release his wrist, but he held fast, his eyes likewise holding mine. “No,” he said softly. “Let me hold your hand.” I remained unmoving as his grasp slid from my wrist into my hand. I fought not to react. His green eyes, dark with emotion, shifted minutely, taking in my hair, my eyes, my ears and nose, my beardless chin, my lips so carefully crafted to draw the lips of appreciative men. “You are so, so beautiful,” he whispered. “Exotic and beautiful.” I could almost taste the dark alcohol on his breath. I wanted to drink of it, to become intoxicated with him.
I struggled to maintain my mask. Cold, I insisted to myself. Too much is at stake. I must be cold as mountain ice, unmoving as mountain stone. Yet I longed to return the compliment, to tell him that I found him just as exotically beautiful. Worse, my own gaze was dwelling on his lips, which seemed just as deliberately crafted to entice as mine had been. I longed to bridge the space between our mouths. Because he was tall, taller than any Babylonian, I was looking up at his comely face. Kissing him would mean raising myself up on my toes, and despite the indignity of such a move, a subordination unprecedented in all my dealings with men before Baladan, I was so drawn to him that some corner of my soul screamed for me to take the chance offered by this proximity and his desire and join our lips together. Now, it urged. Kiss him now!
“Da’ummatim,” he said, his voice low and smooth. His expression was serious even as his eyes continued to betray his lust. “Must you obey all my commands?” he asked. “And answer truthfully what I ask?”
The conflict his probing words made with what our bodies were demanding of us was physically painful, a fire in my gut. He had divined, from my hints and words and his own knowledge, exactly the terms of my confinement as set for me by the treacherous high priest of Marduk and the conniving would-be overlord of all humanity. I read his face, however, and did not see the evil ambition that was so obvious in Baladan once his subterfuge was torn away, nor was there the smug contempt of Esagil. He was simply looking to me for confirmation of his surmises. The scholar aligning his facts and truths. I hardened my face. Cold stone, I coached myself. “I must,” I said, because I could not do otherwise.
“Because I lit the lamp,” he said.
“Yes,” I agreed. We were standing so close, his hand firmly clasped in mine between our chests. I was self-consciously aware not only of being smaller, but that he was clothed and I had only the gauzy trousers I normally wore to entice and seduce. I had never felt so powerless. Only the knowledge that interpreting his words allowed me to make some decisions about my own actions gave me any solace. That, and something I saw in his eyes—something I could not quite understand.
He swayed slightly—his inebriation was not entirely worn off. “If someone else lights the lamp, do they become your master?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I knew the conditions of my enslavement—they might as well have been written on my soul. In a way, they were. When his brows lifted slightly in curious surprise, I elaborated, “You must die first.” As did he who was my master before you… in tormenting flame, I almost added. I kept the words inside my head for now.
He nodded minutely. He hesitated a second before asking, “Can you ever loose yourself from the bonds that hold you to the master of the lamp?”
To my surprise his reaction to this news was a slight frown, a furrow forming between his sandy brows. I realized what I saw in his eyes now was… compassion? Whatever his ambitions and desires for exploiting my powers according to his own will, my master understood my condition, and he felt for me. In some deep recess of my heart, hope flickered and bloomed to a steady flame. For all my long study of them, a curriculum all but unique to me among my kind, humans sometimes surprised me. When they were I was oddly moved, reminded anew of my fascination with them. It was a welcome balm in this unnerving moment.
He licked his gentle red lips, his head moving infinitesimally closer. “Da’ummatim,” he said earnestly, “can you do harm to me?”
I stared straight into those emerald eyes, but I saw only trepidation there, no lust for power to be wielded through me. Do not be fooled, I told myself. I firmed my mask-face and intended to speak harshly and with subtly veiled contempt. But my emotions betrayed me. In place of the cold “I cannot” I had ready on my lips, what I said was, “Never.”
Our eyes locked for a long moment. My master prepared to speak, his lips parting, but before he could say anything there was a loud pounding on a metal surface, and a ringing, angry voice came from the other side, beyond the entrance to this underground room. “Sutton!” the angry voice bellowed. “Sutton, you sniveling worm, you’d better not be in there, or so help me, I’ll beat the fuck out of you!”
“Fuck! Jesus, you’re not dressed, he’s going to know for sure I’m a goddamned fairy!” he groaned, glancing hectically between me and the distant gloom where the pounding was coming from. He clasped his hand over his mouth anxiously. I blinked at him. His words made no sense to me. I recognized all the words, including the reference to the local deity, but how being found with a man wearing only trousers would cause the angry man to believe my master was a small, winged magic user cursed by the gods was too great a puzzle to work out in the midst of everything else.
The pounding came again. “Sutton!” the angry man roared distantly from beyond the metal entrance doors. “I know you’re in there, I can hear you! Open the fucking door!” I gathered the doors to this space were barred from within, or whoever this person was would have barged straight in. Clearly he had authority over both this place, and my master.
Sutton’s wide eyes fixed on me suddenly. “Can you put on clothes?” he asked. “I mean, instantly? Magically?”
“If you command it,” I said. I met his gaze, hoping that my remaining calm would help steady him. No signs of that so far. I could not use my elemental powers without his consent. He knew this, but he was flustered by the arrival of the angry man, and the potential accusation of being a winged magic-us——oh. My brain unexpectedly hit on the metaphorical usage of the word “fairy”, and I belatedly understood that he feared discovery of his homosexuality. This was not as much of a surprise as it might have been. In my experience humanity was widely divergent on the acceptance of love between men: a dire offense in some places, inconsequential in others, and usually different across class and caste as well. In some quarters of Babylon it was all but celebrated, as I well knew. Perhaps here it was an offense; at least, there was clearly something in it for Sutton to fear.
At my confirmation Sutton nodded quickly, several times. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Da’ummatim, I want you to be wearing clothes like mine.”
In the space between one moment and the next I instantly slid my senses around the strange attire my master wore, resisting a strong urge to explore the bare flesh beneath. Vocabulary in his language, plucked from his knowledge of these things, came with them: undershirt, shirt, jacket, tie. Boxers, pants. Socks, shoes. Pants pockets: Wallet, keys, handkerchief. Jacket pocket: pen, letter, envelope. With a thought I wrapped them around my own form, unconsciously adjusting them to my own slightly smaller stature.
I glanced down at the costume. All seemed to be in order, but when I looked up hopefully Sutton seemed more agitated than ever. “Not exactly like mine!” he whined. “He’ll think we’re down here playing dress up, or—Jesus!”
I stared at him, more confused than ever. More banging sounded, and he started moving toward the doors. “Just—change the tie!” he hissed, half turning toward me and waving his own in my direction. Maybe he wasn’t used to barking orders, because before turned away again a pang of guilt crossed his face and he added, “Please.”
I watched him nonplussed as he crossed the remaining distance and started unbolting heavy metal doors, which were barely visible so far from the lamplight. I was inclined to scoff. Did it matter if you barked an order at a slave and then added, “please”? My gift for the understanding of all languages told me instinctively what “please” meant in this context: a softening of a command into a command phrased as a request. The Chaldean language did not have this particular nicety, nor did old Akkadian, but the long-gone Sumerians had had it, and the Hindus…
I thought further, delving into my understanding. In my master’s language, “please” was a shorthand and stood for a longer phrase, “if you please”. If you please. But that meant—
I studied my own magical bindings, searching for the agonizing compulsion to “change the tie” as I had been commanded. My stomach fluttered as I confirmed what I already knew—it wasn’t there. My bindings were made with words and conditioned by words, and as it turned out my master’s command really had been converted to a request by that one word, please. Use your powers to do this if you please. If it pleases you.
Choice. He had given me choice!
I felt a huge grin split my beardless face. In the phrasing of the local vernacular, I was going to change the fuck out of this tie.
(Later, I heard of how mothers in this culture would often tell their children that “please” was a “magic word”. If only they knew!)
Sutton was having a heated exchange with a wide, hairy man wearing a costume much like Sutton’s, only darker in the jacket and pants and with an odd-looking hat crammed on his head. I had little time. I looked down at my tie, considering. Unfortunately I had not thought very often or very deeply about the sartorial choices of the men I focused on for seduction; and, except on special occasions or during formal audiences, in the hot lands between the rivers they were seldom much more elaborate than the loose trousers in which I had first appeared before Sutton. What I knew of exchanging one sample of a given article of clothing for another tended to involve color, and as the sash—no, “tie”—was a vivid dark green with tiny yellow spots this seemed a promising line of thought. Ah—perhaps ties were meant to match eye color. Sutton’s eyes were green, ergo, a green tie. I nodded. As I was in the form of a handsome young Chaldean my eyes were unavoidably brown, so I recolored the green of the tie into a rich, riverbank brown to match. I wasn’t sure about the yellow spots, so I made them go away altogether. I could always put them back if need be.
I looked up in time to see the angry man slap at a wall by the doors, and suddenly blinding white light leapt up all around us. Taken aback, I would have shifted to my shadow form and vanished if I could. Instead fought to gather my composure. I had visited many lands and always made a point of fitting in among them, even when, as on my last visit to India, I took on the appearance of an outlander. Now, my life and comfort might depend in it. And yet, fear of retaliation was not the only reason I did not want to discomfit Sutton.
I mastered myself and looked up again to find Sutton striding toward me, the wide, hairy man in tow. The other man was scowling, but he put on a polite expression as they approached me. “Dr. Nathanael Stanley,” Sutton told the other man, “I would like you to meet my colleague, Dr.—” He faltered, but only for a second. “—Dr. Matim Rassam, of the Babyloniako Institouto Archaiologiko in, er, Ceylon. He’s only just arrived from, er, Alexandria to consult.” I tilted an eyebrow at Sutton—his extemporization skills really needed work, though he did have the excuse of being flustered, a little drunk, and recently in receipt of an unexpected jinn. Sutton eyed me with a hint of warning as he continued, “Dr. Rassam, this is my superior here at the museum, Dr. Nathanael Stanley.”
As I had suspected—authority. Stanley was still clearly aggrieved, but for the sake of a guest feigned geniality. “Dr. Rassam, it’s a pleasure,” he said gruffly, sticking out his hand. I stared at it with interest. Stanley’s dark caterpillar brows edged upward toward his funny hat.
“Oh, er, they don’t shake hands in Ceylon, I’m afraid,” Sutton jumped in. “It’s considered bad luck. Sorry, meant to warn you,” he added, and though this was aimed at Stanley this seemed actually meant for me. I was a little charmed by this.
“Oh, yes, of course, I forgot,” Stanley said, dropping his hand. “My apologies. Beautiful country, Ceylon,” he added, as if he stopped by frequently.
“Yes, it is,” I said. I had no idea where in the wide world we were, but I was willing to bet a hard fuck that that this oaf had never been to Ceylon in his life, nor anywhere else interesting, either. I repeated his pleasantry. “Dr. Stanley, it’s a pleasure.”
With a suspicious glance at Sutton, Stanley said, “What brings you to Baltimore, Dr. Rassam? Dr. Sutton has not seen fit to inform us of your visit.”
I filed away the unfamiliar city name for later study and pushed down the initial disappointment at not being somewhere I already knew. “It was last minute,” I said. “I was in your beautiful city and I decided to drop in on my colleague, Dr. Sutton, to discuss—” Suddenly my own extemporization failed momentarily, but I caught sight of the relic-strewn workbench and carried on quickly. “—some particularly difficult inscriptions.”
“That’s right,” Sutton jumped in. “Dr. Rassam is a whiz with cuneiform. Bronze Age, Iron Age, Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite—doesn’t matter. I think we’re close to a breakthrough on a piece that’s been troubling me for days.”
“Really?” Stanley’s dark caterpillars rose again. “Show me.”
Sutton blinked twice at him. “Of course,” he said. He turned quickly toward the workbench and dithering a second, bent suddenly as if remembering and pulled a flat wooden case, to my eyes chosen at random from among several similar cases, from a shelf underneath. He set it on an open space and lifted the lid. Inside was a baked clay tablet—or, rather, three quarters of one, as the top left corner was neatly broken off. The surface was densely packed with cuneiform writing, and I could tell at a glance it was of a very old style compared would have been contemporary in Babylon when I’d “left” it. I bent over it, with Stanley crowding me on my left and Sutton my right.
“It’s Bronze Age Babylonian, circa 2000 BCE,” Sutton explained to Stanley. I looked up at Sutton, trying to convey that this meant nothing to me. I understood the phrase “Bronze Age”, but not the calendar reference, and the definition I had for the arbitrary term “Bronze Age” was in terms of that same calendar. Without a frame of reference I understood I was lost. Sutton seemed to grasp my problem, and as I bent back over the tablet he remarked on it, as if in idle commentary. “Amazing to think that this tablet is fifty years short of four thousand years old,” he mused aloud. “Nearly fifteen hundred years before Nabuna’id.”
I glanced sharply at him, eyes wide. The second part just confirmed what I had guessed from the writing—this came from Old Babylon, from before the Achaean war with Troy and the great collapse that followed not long after, the one the Egyptians called the Era of Calamities. The first part, though—it had never occurred to me I might have awoken not only centuries but millennia after my last memories. I was slightly stunned, but Sutton just mouthed We’ll talk later. I nodded.
Stanley merely grunted at Sutton’s banalities. “So,” he said, jabbing a finger at a random passage, “what does this bit say?”
Sutton looked and then said urgently, “Dr. Stanley, perhaps another stanza would be more—”
“Hush,” Stanley said, tossing Sutton another suspicious glance. “Dr. Rassam?”
I peered closer and suppressed a burst of laughter. This part of the tablet, I realized, repeated an old Sumerian erotic yarn I had heard many times in many languages, about a philandering man whom the gods punished with an erection too big for any woman to take—so he simply employed his mighty tool on men’s backsides instead, much to the gods’ exasperation. I glanced at my interlocutor. “It’s a description of a penis, Dr. Stanley,” I said blandly.
“Ha ha, very funny,” Stanley said, but he was frowning, not smiling.
“Actually it is,” I agreed. I began methodically reading out the lines he had pointed to. “How large shall your manhood be, Atab? How prodigious and how majestic? Six times the hoof of a bull shall be your measure, intones angry Enlil, and of roundness—”
“All right, all right,” Stanley said, jumping back from the tablet in disgust. “I don’t want to hear about no ancient tallywhackers.”
“Of course,” said Sutton hurriedly. As we all turned away from the offending tablet, I was amused to see his creamy cheeks pinking in embarrassment. Seeing this made me want to slide my thumbs across both of them, prefatory to pulling him down for a long, passionate kiss.
“Well, this is very promising, Dr. Rassam,” Stanley said, clearly impressed by my performance. “Very promising indeed. The Baltimore Archaeological Museum should perhaps bring you on for an extended consultation. At a very generous level of compensation, of course, for your trouble.”
“I would be honored,” I said politely. “I would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Sutton.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be working with Dr. Sutton,” Stanley said.
“Oh?” I said. I glanced at Sutton, but he was looking down, ashamed. I turned back to Stanley. “Why not?”
Stanley cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. “Dr. Sutton is no longer affiliated with the museum,” he said. To Sutton he added, “You should have apprised Dr. Rassam before he came all this way.”
“I was only notified today, at five o’clock,” Sutton said bitterly. Clearly, the severance was nonconsensual.
I turned to Stanley. “Why is he ‘no longer affiliated’?” I asked.
Stanley cleared his throat again. He drew me a few feet away by my elbow, as if the distance would prevent Sutton overhearing. “Look, Sutton’s a nice guy and all, and top-notch at what he does,” he confided in an undertone. “It’s just—we don’t need his kind here, you understand? A guy who’s too light in the loafers—it looks bad for the museum. I got trustees to worry about. You understand.”
Though the metaphors were confusing I quickly grasped what Stanley was alluding to—the same fear Sutton had expressed. I glanced back at Sutton, aware Stanley would think I was looking for evidence of unnatural inclinations. Sutton was red-faced now, this time with humiliation, but though his head was slightly lowered he was watching me.
Surreptitiously I tapped my wrist where my cuff lay hidden under shirtsleeve and jacket, raising my brows in a question.
A simple nod of his head would function as a command, I was reasonably sure—the equivalent of my asking “May I” and him saying “Yes.” I could restore his job for him, and maybe scrub away Stanley’s narrow-mindedness for good measure. Sutton seemed to have been waiting for this, though, and when I asked my question he shook his head adamantly. I observed him closely, but he had no doubts in him, not about this. Losing his job had crushed him to the point of wanting to pass out drunk in his own basement workshop where he no longer even had a right to be, but he would not even consider using my powers to get his job back.
I realized I was smiling tenderly at him, commiserating with him for his loss while sharing his pride at not being a power-abusing asshole. I could tell, because my small smile was mirrored in his.
I turned back to Stanley. “Dr. Stanley, I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid I will not be accepting your offer,” I said curtly. “I will only work with Dr. Sutton, and as you do not wish to employ him—” I made to move past him.
“Wait, wait, Dr. Rassam,” he said grabbing my arm again. “I assure you, we have many fine—”
“I will only work with Dr. Sutton,” I repeated.
Stanley’s lips tightened, and his brow furrowed. “Why? Are you a fairy too?” he demanded.
I fixed my gaze on Stanley, who had the grace to look chagrined. I didn’t spare him any of my ire. After looking up at Sutton it was a relief to tower over someone again, and I had lost none of my talent for intimidating hurtful pricks. “Listen to me, you small-minded cretin,” I intoned. He opened his mouth to object to this characterization, but I barreled on. “Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time,” I said, “I was trapped in a fire by someone I should have known not to trust. I am here today only because Dr. Sutton brought me out of that fire and everything my betrayer planned for me. He saved me, and now my life… my life is his.” Stanley’s eyes were big and round as he stared up into mine, my (slightly finessed) personal history striking him hard and deep. I drilled my gaze into his. “I will not hear a word against him.”
For a second no one moved. Then Stanley turned away, taking a few steps to separate himself from the confrontation. He wasn’t an idiot—impressed by me and my story or not, he was being pressured, and he didn’t like it. Our only saving grace was what I had sensed earlier—he was already conflicted about this dismissal. He rubbed the back of his head.
“I gotta admit, cutting you loose puts us in a bind, Sutton,” he said at last, his back still to both of us. He dropped his hand heavily as he turned around. “You’re our best Babylon guy.”
“I’m your only ‘Babylon guy’,” Sutton retorted coolly. “Lindsey knows Sumer but he doesn’t know shit about Babylon or Assyria.” He gestured at the workbench behind him. “And that’s 90 percent of our Mesopotamian—”
“I know, I know,” Stanley said, waving him off. He looked at me appraisingly. “He stays, you stay?” he asked.
Stanley made a sour face. He turned away again for a moment, then heaved a long sigh. “I’ll talk to the board,” he said to the room in general. “Tell them it will cost more to replace someone of your caliber.” Then he focused on Sutton, aiming his index finger at him. “Assuming you agree not to—”
I frowned, not liking this, but Sutton put up his hands. “I promise, I’ll be on the up and up,” he said. His glance at me added an unspoken in public. I gave him that small smile again. I still did not like it, but I also did not know this time or this place. I would have to learn more before we could discuss Sutton’s conditional employment further.
Stanley grunted. “We’ll see,” he huffed. “See me on Monday in my office.” With another curious glance at me he added, “Both of you.” Then he turned and left, the big metal door banging closed behind him.
I stood there, bemused by this turn of events. Evidently I now had an identity, here in this time beyond imagining and this place I had never heard of, helping my master study the broken pieces of a world I had lived and fucked in where my memories of that life were all I knew before this moment. I’d have to ask my master to command me to establish the credentials he’d made up out of thin air, and whatever else was needed to live in this world, but that wasn’t what was twisting my heart in that moment. It was hitting me only now that there was no going back to Babylon, or any of the other splendid haunts I’d known. I was stuck here, in the exotic land of Baltimore, thousands of years after Baladan trapped me in a form of life I still had yet to truly experience.
I was still staring blankly after the long-vanished hairy oaf who might well be my employer in a few days’ time when, to my surprise, I felt Sutton’s strong arms wrapping around me from behind. “So,” he said playfully in my ear, “how big is ‘six times a bull’s hoof’, do you think?”
I laughed, glad of the topic change. I extended my hands out the appropriate distance apart. “Wow,” Sutton cooed. “That’s like, sixteen inches.”
I turned in his embrace and, guessing I would meet no resistance, let my arms slide around his tight waist so that we were embracing each other. I felt his cock begin to swell and stiffen between us, and my own responded with eager readiness. Sutton smiled down at me like he had not a care in the world.
It might not last. The stars only knew what having a jinn to command would do even to a good man, but for the moment I felt on an even footing with Sutton, as though we were peers, or kindred. Odd enough for an enslaved jinn and his master, but even more unprecedented for me, a jinn accustomed to wandering among humans without being one of them.
There was something that was troubling me, though. “How did you know I could read the old tablet?” I asked Sutton.
He shrugged slightly, still riding high on post-conflict exhilaration. His firm, muscled body pressed against mine, even through these costumes, was a distraction. “I didn’t exactly,” he admitted. “I knew you could speak English without any prior exposure to it, so I extrapolated from that a facility for languages. Beyond that, I just… crossed my fingers.”
I tried to make sense of this. “You… made the sign of your murdered god, hoping it would bring you luck?”
Sutton smiled. “That’s right.”
I shook my head slightly, never taking my eyes from him. “Baltimore must be an even more superstitious place than Babylon.”
Sutton barked a laugh. His emerald eyes glinted as they danced over my face. A face that I knew pleased him, and that knowledge sent my blood rushing hotly all through my carefully proportioned Chaldean body. “So…” he asked coyly, “do you think you could arrange that Sumerian curse for me?”
I had a feeling that was coming. “Just say the word,” I said cheerily.
He ducked his head for a second, and then added, a little bashfully, “And… for you, too?”
I moderated my grin, with difficulty. “If you like,” I said. “But remember,” I added, greatly daring considering he was my master, “that curse is all about fucking men’s backsides. You’d have to be all right with being fucked by my six-hoof manhood,” I said airily.
“As long as you’re okay,” he shot back, his grin as just as wide, “with being fucked by mine.” He wrapped his hands around my face, thumbs along my cheeks, just as I had meant to do with him. “God, you’re so…” His eyes seemed to darken and light up all at once. He hesitated, seeming torn. “Matim, would you—will you kiss me, even if it’s not a command?”
My grin was so big it was hurting my face. This was going to be a difficult adjustment, and there was much I would face I could not anticipate, but in this moment I was more filled with anticipation than at any time I could remember.
I steadied myself with a deep breath. “Say it this way,” I instructed. “Say, ‘Kiss me… please.’”
His brows slipped up, but I nodded, and he took my word for it. He looked deep into my eyes and said, “Kiss me, please.”
Feeling no compulsion, only desire, I did as he asked, because it did please me. In fact… not only did I kiss him, I kissed the fuck out of him.
Then… then there was Sutton.
Our first kiss was like nothing I had ever encountered before. It was like he was at once all men and, at the same moment, singular and unique, characteristic of none but himself. His full lips met mine willingly but with reticence, as if he were holding back the kind of kiss he was truly capable of—or perhaps he was like a chosen one of legend, aware of his uncommon power but unsure of its extent. He opened for me slowly, maintaining his own forward push as if unwilling to give way to any show of dominance from me; but he did not take charge of the kiss either, and I wondered that he sought not to control nor to be controlled. It was not the first time I had experienced a kiss that conveyed neither submission nor the defiance of it, but in my experience such a kiss was a sign of diffidence, and if there was anything that I did know from the stroke of Sutton’s warm tongue along mine, and the full, impassioned press of his lips, and the feel of his body—a scholar with a smith’s granite physique!—as I held him close in my strong, limber arms, and the small noises he was making unconsciously from some secret place in his throat… if all that told me anything, it was that when it came to the two of us fucking, Sutton was, and would be, far from diffident. His kiss was strong and confident in a way that enticed and further stiffened my already impressive erection, and yet it was subtly reticent and reserved, as though what he really wanted was something he saw only as a dream he was doubtful could truly be made real. If anything that reticence affected me even more than his physical allure. His emotional response to me made my heart pound harder and louder in my chest. It was beating so hard not just from the towering arousal he had stirred in me—it felt like something within him had grabbed my heart and made it beat for him.
Then, just as I was planning to redouble my assault and show him how much pleasure we could have together—that he could have those dreams he doubted—Sutton broke the kiss and drew back from me, and I found myself falling upwards into wide, green eyes blown black with lust and untold desires as he looked down upon me, a nervous half-smile curving red, kiss-bruised lips. In that moment I knew with a shiver of understanding that I was truly his, and in a way that had nothing to do with spells, and bindings, and brazen lamps inscribed with the doom of a single, feckless jinn.
I had never been bound before, and my insides flopped as I realized that what I was feeling might be part of my curse, and not natural at all. Was this the way of it? If I had stared into Baladan’s eyes, had I kissed him the way I had kissed Sutton just now, would I have ceded my heart to him as I surely had even now to my new master? Would I have given myself over with a swoon and a ziggurat-sized erection to the evil man, unable to be free even in the the desires of my own mind?
But—no. It could not be. I had looked into Baladan’s eyes, and felt only contempt, and, if I were honest, fear. Had I kissed him I would have known disgust, not… this. Not tender affection, nascent and vulnerable as a new-hatched chick.
This did not feel like a binding. It felt like promise, and possibility. It felt like a pleasure and happiness that might come to be, if we chose… and if the gods permitted.
“I can’t stop staring at you,” Sutton said huskily to me. But even as he said the words he lowered his lashes, hiding those green gems save for a tantalizing shiver through long, masculine lashes.
I couldn’t have it. I reached up and, greatly daring, raised his chin oh so slightly. He lifted his lids and met my gaze again. “Don’t,” I instructed him.
The half-smile returned. Pleasure and giddy desire washed through me at the sight of it. “Are you giving me commands, Matim?” he asked in a low, soft baritone, those green eyes glinting as they shifted between mine. The allure in his voice seemed to slake something deep in my chest, and stimulate it, too. Everything he said would through me like a brush of his tongue.
I felt a smile grow on my own face. “Think of it as a petition… Master.”
His smile faded, and mine with it. “Don’t call me that,” he said.
It was a command, and I must obey. But the reason for the command confused me, and I knew my curse, you may recall, as though it were written on my soul. Within limits I was allowed to seek clarification, if my questions were not obstructions of his will.
“You are my master,” I said, though now I could say the word now only as a descriptive term, not as an means of address.
He drew his lips into his mouth a moment, biting them briefly from within. I wondered if this was a habitual gesture of his. I made a note, looking forward to cataloguing all of his quirks and peccadillos. “I am,” he agreed after a moment. He seemed like he might say more, but he left it at that—wisely, I thought. Anything he might have said in amplification of those two words might have complicated or reshaped what was, at root, a very simple bond. His words controlled my words; his will, through those words, controlled not my will but my mastery of elemental forces beyond human understanding.
His acknowledgement—”I am”—hung between us. We stared into each other’s eyes still, thoughts racing behind glinting eyes.
It wasn’t the fact of it. The title, “Master”, was what displeased him, then, in a way that was separate from the circumstances of our bonding. I would have to return to this, I thought, as it seemed a promising avenue of insight into my master and his people. For now, I was glad he did not desire me to abase myself with words. “How shall I address you?” I asked after a moment. “You are called Sutton.” So the ignorant administrator, Dr. Stanley, had addressed him, though I did not know how named worked here. Each society had its own rules, and I knew nothing about this place—nothing at all, except what Sutton had already shown me.
A hint of the smile dawned on Sutton’s lips. I realized I wanted to see only smiles there. Every kind of smile. Repeating the phrasing I had used as if it were risibly arcane, he replied, “I ‘am called’…” He drew a breath, as if preparing to attack a long speech, and said, “Francis Weston Sutton, Junior.”
The names, as I feared, were all mere sounds, not connecting with anything I already knew. I remembered Sutton’s revelation to me, while we were meeting with the unpleasant Dr. Stanley, that I was separated from the cultures and peoples I had known by nearly twenty-five hundred years. The span did not daunt me. I was far older than that, and we jinn were no more troubled by the passage of times than the shadows themselves. What niggled at me was that I had spent all that time asleep, while the world turned and empires rose and fell. All that time humanity had raced along its reckless, transforming journey, the world I knew forgotten and incomprehensible beyond an impossibly distant horizon.
What would I even recognize of the mortal men of this time? Could I even live in this world, as strange to me as the streets of Uruk to the beast-man Enkidu?
I thought over the names he had given me. The last, at least, was language, and so interpretable by me through my gift. “You share your name with your father?” I hazarded.
The smile did not douse as before, but his expression stilled, and he said only, “Yes.” I was no fool. I had studied humanity for longer than they had been aware of creatures like me. He was not glad to be made to think of his father.
I returned us to topic. “Shall I call you ‘Francis’?” I asked.
He shook his head slightly, though he seemed amused at the thought. “Hell, no,” he said. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “My friends call me ‘West’,” he said, watching me closely.
I waited only a second. “Am I your friend, West?” I asked solemnly, though I smiled as I did so. It was like a casual ritual. The phrase sounds like an oxymoron, but I had seen many. The philosophic Greeks even had a word for it, though they tended to think it was a misguided practice, found mainly among barbarian traders and other wealthy but subnoble types.
“I’d like you to be,” he answered. His gaze seemed to deepen as he looked down at me, and he said a little more softly, “Very much.” He cocked his head a little and seemed to be considering his words. Finally he said slowly, “Matim, if… if I were not your master, and just a man, would you…” But then he trailed off, leaving the question unfinished.
“Would I…?” I prompted.
He swallowed. “… Go home with me?” He bit the insides of his lips again, very quickly, then added sternly, “Under those conditions, remember.” He paused. “But… would you?”
I knew what “going home” with him meant. I knew his fears. He lived in a repressive society that had already brutally ejected him from his life’s work that very day, a fate from which he had been reprieved only through the unlikely fluke of having awoken a displaced jinn who was not only bound to his word but who happened to like him as a man. He also feared the abuse of his power over me, and, to be honest… I was coming to love him for it. Not from a servant’s devotion to his master, either, but as a man stirred to admiration, both physical and emotional, of a fellow man whose camaraderie, and sexual congress, he fervently desired.
Slave or not, there was no doubt of my answer. “I would,” I said, simply and honestly.
And then—stars and shadows, there it was. The most breathtaking smile I had ever seen in, literally, the entire history of humankind.
To get to West’s home from the museum where he worked, it turned out, there was an intervening ordeal. To make the journey, we had to ride within a loud and terrifying beast that he called a ‘streetcar’.
I was no fool. I knew that this enclosed metal tube, its stomach full of hard seats and gabbling mortals, was pulled along grating metal tracks by some kind of engine, and not by the volition of a giant mustard-yellow monster that spent its life swallowing and disgorging men, women, small babies, and the occasional jinn. In my long life I had seen all manner of increasingly complex machines powered by muscle, water, and wind, from boats to mills to war machines, and it took no great leap of faith to imagine what humans were capable of even before I had seen the ubiquitous mechanization that characterized this modern world. But no creature, whether human, jinn, or even god, can endure what is entirely alien to him without trepidation. I sat within the cranking, screaming, trundling chimera with my body stiff and my face a mask, massaging my mind as methodically as I could to overcome my irrational but at first implacable fears, while West, my master but no master of his own world, sat beside me and struggled against his forbidden desire to hold my hand in comfort.
Instead West provided such solace as he could by narrating our journey from the city’s heart to the outlying residential neighborhoods where lay his home. Perhaps he had already discerned that his voice had a distinct effect on me; in any event, as we rattled down the centers of the city’s bustling thoroughfares he spoke to me in a calm, soothing voice, describing landmarks and telling funny stories of the city’s recent past as though I truly were the visiting scholar from “Ceylon” he had made me out to be. After a while I found myself unbending, wrapped in his warming tones, and I started to pay attention to the tall buildings—some taller than ziggurats, though not nearly as interesting, even rouged as they now were by the lingering hues of sunset—and the vast quantities of shops, offices, people, motorized wagon-carts (“automobiles”, I corrected myself), and every other manifestation of urban life.
“There are many cities like this here?” I asked, staring out as the tallest building yet rolled past us, a bulky tower that had had to be nearly three hundred cubits high.
“Many,” West agreed, watching the sights pass by as I did.
Finally I wrested my eyes from the windows and turned to look at West. “This is not the largest,” I guessed.
West smiled softly. “I’ll take you to New York some time,” he said, keeping his voice pitched for me alone as best he could over the noise of the machine and the people within and without. “Then you’ll truly see what cities can be like. The good, and the bad.” He looked past me again as we paused at an intersection, giving us line of sight downhill toward the docks and the sea beyond. “But to be honest, I like it here,” he said. “If I had the choice of living in any city in the world, I would still choose Baltimore.”
He looked back at me, a question in his eyes. “Babylon,” I said. “But don’t tell them.” He smiled wide. I asked, “Does it thrive still? Babilim?”
West’s expression saddened. “I am sorry, Matim,” he said. “It sank beneath the sands long ago.”
I bent my head. Of course. Human society was ephemeral, as I knew better than most. “Marduk will not have been pleased,” I said, mostly to myself.
I could sense his curiosity, but he did not ask me about the gods of what was to him (and now to me) an ancient world, nor about what befell a deity when cities crumbled and worshippers were lost. I could not have told him much. Jinn and gods were kin, but we did not mix. The gods, I think, envied our freedom. We danced through the shadows of an entire world, while the unfortunate gods were rooted to their lands and waters. I had seen the great rivers and rugged shores and ice-capped mountains of a thousand peoples, but Zeus would only ever know Olympus, and Horus the mighty Nile.
“You knew Babylon at its prime,” West said instead. “The knowledge you possess would make men I know weep with joy to have it for their own.”
I met his gaze and asked cheekily, “Is it my knowledge you covet, Dr. Sutton?”
West spoke no word, but his burning eyes answered for him well enough.
It was a short walk in the balmy late summer evening from the streetcar stop to West’s home. It was a simple white house of wood and brick—a ‘bungalow’, he called it—nestled in a leafy neighborhood of many others like it. By the time we reached it and were mounting the steps to his porch the sun was gone, and the sky’s last reds had ebbed to indigo flecked with a faint dappling of stars. Lingering on the last step I glanced up at them with a wistful smile, remembering the obsessive astronomers of Babylon and the countless stars they memorized and charted.
West stood near the door to his home with his keys in his hand, watching me. A small, spherical lamp aglow with soft yellow-white light was mounted on the side of the house behind him, casting his powerful frame in gentle silhouette. “You look good in that suit,” he said, as I turned back to face him. There was longing in his voice, and the kind of pride that came to knowing that he had a chance at me and no one else did. “More than good.”
I smiled at him, taking the last step and allowing him to admire me. He did so with a smirk, and after a moment I joined him in the endeavor, looking down at myself. “Thanks,” I said. “It is… slightly less uncomfortable than I imagined.”
“Slightly less,” West repeated, amused.
I met his gaze and took a step closer to him, and I saw the heat stoked in his eyes like a stove set alight. “You remember what I was wearing when I first came to you,” I said teasingly.
“Oh, I remember,” West responded. The look in his eyes told me he had engraved that image in his memory, never to be forgotten. “Those gauzy trousers of yours looked like they might slide off that perfect ass with the mere brush of a hand.” The thought clearly pleased him. I was very sure he would ask me to wear them again, once he was ready to permit me to wear any kind of clothes at all.
“That was indeed the look I was going for.” I moved closer still, close enough I could smell the distinct redolence of his deliciously masculine body and burgeoning arousal. “I was in the midst of a… seduction.”
West’s green eyes roved down my lithely made body, then back up to meet mine. “The man you mentioned?” he asked, his expression turning serious. “The one you said you should have known not to trust?”
I only nodded. I would tell him the full story later, but I was in no mood just then to discuss my enemies, or the magic of the patron god of my favorite city that they had used to entrap me. Ironically, in that moment Baladan might have wanted me to speak of him. Standing there before this man, who was tall, well-made, accomplished yet humble, fond, and passionate beneath the civil mask he wore to survive, I could almost speak of gratitude for the miscreant’s unwitting gift, twisting my fate with West’s.
A thought seemed to occur to West, and he frowned. “Wait,” he said. “We didn’t—should we have brought the lamp?” he asked abruptly. “Do you need to be, I don’t know, near it, or something?”
I shook my head. We had doused the lamp, of course, but we had left it behind on its stele in our haste to depart the museum for the privacy of Wests’s home. “As long as the lamp exists, I am bound to it, and its owner,” I said. “And it cannot be destroyed, except by the same god-magic that forged my bonds.” I offered him a crooked smile. “You are, as you would say in your tongue, stuck with me.”
West stared down at me for a long moment, drinking me in in the soft, steady light of the strange white lamp. “Your eyes,” he said. “They’re like burning coals. And your skin… dark, and flawless…” His eyes raked my cheeks, my chin, my lips… all the places he longed to touch. “Fuck, Matim,” he said, releasing a breath that seemed equal parts lust and disbelief. “Did you make yourself this beautiful, just to ensnare poor sods like me?”
My grin was wide, cocky, and lascivious. “Absolutely,” I said.
He shook his head slightly, not taking his eyes off my face. “Unfair,” he said.
I kept my grin and considered praising his own beauty, which outmatched most I had lain with, but I was unsure he would accept my words as truth. Instead I said, “To be honest, this form is not exactly as I would wish it were, were I seeking a new…” I paused, considering the words of his unusually expansive language. “…flame?” I finished.
“Yeah?” he asked, licking his upper lip with just the very tip of his tongue in a way that finished the hardening of my shaft that had been happening over the last moments.
“Baladan… when he enslaved me, he took my beard,” I confessed. I raised my chin to look directly into his darkening eyes, the light behind him making him seem almost on the edge of shadow-kin himself. I bore my gaze into his and said, “You would have liked the beard.”
West actually growled, a low deep sound from the back of his throat that sent wondrous shivers up my spine.
“Evening, Dr. Sutton!” called a brash voice suddenly. “You’re home late this evening!”
West froze. For the briefest moment I watched as he hung, agonized, between two states of being—West, as I thought of him, and Sutton. Then the mask came up, and a tight, inane smile emerged from some dark corner within. He lifted his eyes over my shoulder and raised his left hand in greeting, the right clutching his keys hard and tight. “Evening, Mrs. Bell!” he called. “Nice night, isn’t it?”
I turned and saw that on the sidewalk that ran just set in from the automobile-lined street, separated from us by West’s small, green yard and the little walkway that led up to the steps, was stopped a frowning woman in a kerchief and a long-sleeved blue dress. Her hands were tightly gripping onto a what I guessed was a baby carriage. The mothers I had met in my wanderings used various more or less ingenious methods to move their infants around with them, usually baskets or their own backs, but the smooth, concrete pedestrian surfaces of West’s world was ideal for a wheeled contraption such as this. I offered her a polite smile of my own. “Evening, ma’am,” I said, nodding to her.
She eyed me suspiciously, then looked back up at West. “And who’s this?” she demanded, as a perfumed lady might demand a stranger’s name from her courtiers at a feast-day ball.
I smiled, amused to see that though empires rise and fall, and the very lines of earth and sea move, one thing remained eternal—the busybody. “This is a colleague of mine, Dr. Rassam, visiting from overseas,” West explained. “He’ll be staying here during his visit.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” I said. It seemed odd and awkward to be conducting such civilities with a space of twenty feet between us, as if we were encountering each other across a fell chasm in some underground landscape; but West made no move to leave the porch and close the gap between them, and she, for her part, was as unmoving as a pharaoh’s statue in the Valley of the Kings.
I realized on second look that she was somewhat younger than I had guessed—possibly West’s age, though she seemed older. The role she had chosen for herself had aged her, perhaps.
Mrs. Bell harrumphed, eyeing me again as if looking for something to sieze upon. “Well, you’ll have to bring him over Sunday night,” she pronounced. Then, as if she’d decided to do the thing properly, she addressed me. “Dr. Rassam, my husband and I would be pleased if you would be our guest for supper on Sunday.”
“Your hospitality honors me,” I replied formally, speaking in this new tongue words I had uttered uncounted times before. “I accept with humility and gratitude.” Her response was another hmph, though I was sure she was at least a little impressed by my respectful courtesy. Matrons like her have always appreciated a man who knows the forms and postures of social dictate, even if trust and respect are slow to follow.
“We’ll see you then,” West said, and I could hear the unease in his voice. “Good night, Mrs. Bell.”
“Good night, Dr. Sutton,” she returned. To me, she added, “Dr. Rassam.” Then she marched off as stiffly as if she were that pharaoh’s statue come to life, pushing her child before her in its carriage.
“Old bat,” West muttered when she was more than far enough away not to hear.
I turned to him with a smile. “She watches out for her neighborhood,” I said.
He rolled his eyes, jiggling his keys as he turned finally back toward his front door. “She watches out for anything she can attack,” he said. He inserted one of the metal keys into the lock and twisted it, pushing the door open and turning to me with an exasperated expression. “Nothing delights her more than something she doesn’t approve of,” he said.
“She seems not to approve of me,” I said genially.
“She doesn’t like foreigners,” West said grimly. “More than that, you’re a suspicious man standing on my porch, instead of the eligible young lady she’s been watching for like a hawk.”
“She suspects you?” I asked, taking his meaning.
His mouth tightened into a line. “If she knew for sure I was a…”—he spoke in a low voice, only for my ears, but he still omitted the word—“… she’d turn out the neighborhood with torches and pitchforks before you could say Nebuchadnezzar.”
I wasn’t sure if he was speaking literally or metaphorically, but I decided the best course was to distract him. “I could transform myself into a woman, if you commanded it,” I said lightly.
The heat flared in his eyes again. “Don’t you dare,” he said, his lips quirking adorably. “Now that’s an order.”
I smiled. “As you say.”
I could feel the desire well up in him again, hot and fast. “Get in here,” he said. “I think we can find better things to do than make you into a woman.” He gestured toward his open door with mock formality. “Dr. Rassam,” he said.
“Dr. Sutton,” I said, inclining my head, before passing into West’s domain. He entered and closed the door, shutting out the world of men.
The Dragon of Marduk slid from the empty spaces between worlds like lava from a crack in the molten earth, emerging into the pitch-like blackness of an underground tomb. It drew in breath again through its wide nostrils and craned its long, sinuous neck around the unknown space, straining its eldritch senses. No—not a tomb. A storehouse of things. Ancient things. He could smell their age, and in some he could taste their connection to his master. Marduk, as his father called him from birth, the Son of the Sun, most radiant of gods. Marukka, Marutukku, Mardochaios, by whose command shall be creation, destruction, deliverance, and grace. The god of Babylon once great and now lost to the mortal world, though he himself abided still in the houses of dust, awaiting his moment.
The Dragon sniffed at the musty air. The place was not forsaken. Men had been here. Men—and one who was more than man. One who stank of magic wound by the will of his master.
The creature cautiously loosed an aura of faint, amber light from his mouth. The dim susurrus of illumination wafted among the crates and detritus in a long, sinuous plume, glinting on metal and polished stone. One relic drew all his attention. It was alone and singular atop a dark, cylindrical stele. His eyes saw only a brazen lamp, but to his sense of smell it was a talisman, so radiant with Marduk’s own magic that the Dragon’s heart leapt for joy.
Hear me, Master, he thought, sending his message across the fissures of the universe. Hear me. I have found him. The Bound One, the jinn shackled by your mighty powers. The dragon crept closer, admiring the beautiful artifact. Soon you will be freed to rule again on Earth.
The jinn would not agree, of course. Even if commanded by his human master, a jinn might find the strength of will to resist. But the creature was not worried. None, neither man, nor jinn, nor god, had ever fought the Dragon of Marduk and lived.
I had spent so many centuries amused by them. I was fascinated by their quirks and passions to the point of flitting constantly among them, taking their form as the moment moved me and indulging in every human avidity from sumptuous foods to decadent sex, or perhaps it was the other way around. Argument, camaraderie, dance and song—it was all a wide banquet laid out for me, the guest who could arrive and depart as he willed with only the self-imposed obligation of courtesy to my host and the mortals I consorted with before reverting to my true form and sifting effortlessly into the limitless dark.
I roamed far and wide, from continent to continent and from the valleys of roaring great rivers to the hidden, mountain-nestled plateaus, all the while sipping the wine of humans and their transient lives, observing with something akin wonder their relentless building and rebuilding after every catastrophe of capricious nature and venal self-sabotage. Recovery and dogged adaptation seemed to characterize humanity at least as much as greed and conflict. As a race they found to find a way to surpass mere existence—a trait I could not honestly ascribe even to my own kind. Each nascent community emerged from the rocks and sand a creature bent on the ideal balance of security, prosperity, and identity, each one seeming alike and yet as different and unique, as stubbornly idiosyncratic, as one cedar tree from the next, and for each that vanished into the soil another sprang, and another. My fixation made me in the end an outcast among my own kind, so that when the moment came for my own personal Deluge I was become, had I only realized it, a being without a world of my own. I was a ghost among two kinds, neither jinn nor man.
Unwittingly my enemies, the evil noble Baladan and the hateful high priest Esagil, had solved my problem for me. By trapping me and binding me to the brazen lamp, imperfectly yet unalterably and in perpetuity, they had cursed me to become the object of my obsession rather than the subject. No longer the spectator, far from the whim-struck visitant, I was deprived of my true nature, most of which lay beyond human understanding, thought not, perhaps, beyond their fears. I was flesh and bone, as eternally shackled to the human form I had once donned and shed with a thought as I was to the lamp on which my existence and fate were lettered in a system and tongue few now even knew existed. Even being subjected to will and words of he who owned and lit the lamp seemed to pale, in my most wretched hours, in comparison to this. Humans could be daunted, and masters overcome. I had proven so with Baladan. The loss of my shadow self, the reduction to a simple human existence… that was a sorrier dilemma, one that could not be outsmarted by merely knocking over a lampstand and shoving a villain into the ensuing conflagration.
For all that humans had ever delighted me, I had never imagined becoming forced to live as one. I was amused by the irony. I had lost all, and through ruination had gained a gift beyond my own magic—to live as a mortal. Now it was mine to navigate this strange and uncertain sea so far from that which I had left behind.
Recovery and dogged adaptation, a voice within me said. That is their way, even when they do not know it.
I had learned from the humans after all. Perhaps enough to follow a mortal path, from now until the end of time.
“Tell me about Babylon,” I said as West returned from the kitchen with two tall glasses full of a yellow beverage.
West gave me curious, sidelong look as he sat beside me. “I think that’s my line,” he said wryly. He offered me one of the drinks and I took it, watching him. He watched me back, a faint smile on his delicious, pink lips.
We were showered and reclothed after lengthy and athletic endeavors in West’s airy bedroom, and now sat side by side on a wooden bench suspended on chains from the roof of his back porch, enjoying the gentle breeze of the cooling summer night. I wore a pair of West’s loose, light trousers decorated in a rust-colored design he called “plaid”, and a short-sleeved shirt of his, not nearly so stiff as our museum attire but still in simple white. West, beside me, was similarly attired, except that the plaid of his trousers was in various dark blues. Our feet were bare, which suited us both; West was no more a fan of the cramped, shiny black shoes he wore than I was.
Neither of us wore anything underneath our trousers, so the shapes of our matching six-hooflength phalluses against our thighs were easy to see under the fabric, were there anyone but us there to see them. I entertained myself imagining the tinted design of the trousers wrapped cozily around the long, thick mass of West’s slumbering prick as being the result of him having been painted by a gifted Egyptian artist, one who’d spent long, contented hours at his craft choosing the finest brushes and laying the most expensive blues and purples in interwoven adornment of his mighty appendage, itself no less beautiful now, and perhaps more so, for its “cursed” increase in size and heft. Once I could have brought such a fancied embellishment into the truth of reality with a few focused turns of the mind… but perhaps I would not have thought to do so. My needs had long been simple, like the shadows to which I reverted to flit across the landscape of Man: I had craved satiation, of my desire to be entertained and of my need to experience the flight of human sexual climax. Back then I could almost have believed that a mortal life would have opened my eyes to new desires and more complicated cravings—but I would not have understood.
I realized West was watching me stare at his member. I looked up to see his hint of a smile widen into a smirk. Emotions deluged me. I was salacious, grateful, covetous, and abashed all at once. I ducked my head. “Drink,” he said. He meant the cold glass in my hand, though I could easily have understood him to mean that I drink of himself. I would gladly have done so, and not only in the literal way I had enjoyed a half of an hour before. But I knew, and my compulsion knew, what he intended.
I appraised the pale yellow liquid critically before complying. Oblong blocks of ice gently churned in the liquid—a magic as great as my own in most of the lands I had visited. “It’s lemonade,” West continued as I raised it to my lips, drawing in the sweetly tart aroma. “Perfect for a summer night.”
I took a sip and looked over at him, surprised. “Fermented lemonade?” I asked when I’d swallowed it down.
He was still smiling. “Not exactly,” he said. He took a long drink from his own glass, watching me. After swallowing he settled a little more against the gently swinging bench, our shoulders pressing cozily together. He lowered the glass and the hand that held it, resting both on his long, firm thigh. “I added a splash of vodka.”
I nodded, taking another sip. Now I had a name and a story for the unfamiliar liquor.
“Don’t worry, I’m not a lush,” he said after a moment. It must have just occurred to him that he was loosened by drink at our first meeting, only hours ago, and now was partaking again. “Before, I was drowning my sorrows. Now,” he added, glancing over at me with a glint in his green eyes, “I’m celebrating.”
“What do you celebrate, mortal?” I teased. “That you have a mighty jinn at your command?”
His eyes smoldered as they locked with mine. “Not even close,” he said, his deep, liquid voice wrapping itself firmly around my heart.
After a moment of this West seemed to recollect himself and tore his gaze away. He took another drink of the cold lemonade cocktail, and I did the same. It grieved me that West suffered from a reticence about his natural inclination toward men—toward me—that manifested even in the back yard of his own home.
I glanced out over the carefully tended lawn and small corner garden strengthing long and narrow before me, enclosed by a pine-plank that would be all to easy for a neighbor to peer over in hello. Perhaps his neighbors were like Mrs. Bell, suspicious and reactive. Then again, they might be oblivious sorts, waiting to be thunderstruck by the revelation of Dr. Sutton’s secret proclivities. Or they might be sympathetic… maybe more than sympathetic. I took another drink and smiled. In the ancient cities I had explored, people mostly lived more tightly together than this, and oddly enough under such circumstances mortals consistently found that living in the folds of each other’s robes was best approached by meticulously minding each other’s privacy, and their own. Here, I was starting to suspect that such urban practicalities were not embraced.
“Okay, now I need to know,” West said as I pondered his, and now my, suburban condition. “Can you… do you get drunk?”
I looked over at him, surprised by the question. He was already more relaxed, and I realized with a pang that I found him just as alluring gentled and languid like this as I did when he was straight-backed and flinty-eyed. My enhanced prick twitched as I remembered the steel he had shown in refusing my offer to recover his rescinded employment with magic, and now those same eyes were soft and full of curious affection. I looked out at the yard and tried to focus on his question. Overhead the stars were faint but reassuringly present, a constant in an inconstant world.
“I’m not sure,” I said. I considered for a moment, then decided the best way to answer was to relate a relevant experience. “Once when I was in Shanghai—”
“Shang—you’ve been to Shanghai?” West broke in, amazed.
“I have,” I said, grinning. “And there I met a young scholar—much like you and handsome enough, though not nearly as delightful to look at.”
“Pshaw,” West said. He must have been becoming inured to my compliments; his cheeks barely pinked in response to my words.
“I was visiting Pei a second time, having encountered him on my previous visit, and—”
“What did you look like? Did you go like this?”
I shook my head, smiling slightly at the memory. “In those days many of the southern men held a secret desire for the northern barbarians,” I explained. “They seldom saw them, but they had many strange tales and… tastefully lewd drawings. So on that occasion I went as a tall, pale, broad-shouldered Donghu-man, with long hair and scarred arms, as though I were an ex-warrior that had elected to wander the exotic southern lands instead. I attracted a lot of attention.”
“I’ll bet. Was Pei pleased?”
“Very. I affected disinterest when I found him at his family’s tavern—I had gone in a different form the previous time, so he did not know me—and he chose to try to woo me with drink, as though seeking to fell a bull by impairing its senses.”
West grinned. “Did it work? Was the mighty Donghu warrior felled?”
“Pei felled himself, alas, before I could be properly seduced,” I said. “But I did feel the effects in the physical form I took. His wine was strong, and I was forced to clear my mind more than once as we played. After he started singing I elected to clear his mind, too, but…” I smiled wickedly, then continued, “…only enough for him to take me to his rooms and thoroughly enjoy my company.”
West bit his lip in that way I was finding irresistibly endearing. The smolder was back in his eyes. “I understand his motivation,” he said. He pondered what I had told him. “So your human form is like ours? Subject to human needs and vulnerabilities?”
I shook my head slowly. “The curse preserves me against harm,” I said. “Or rather, it condemns me to this form, unaltered, in perfect perpetuity. I cannot be injured, but passing effects like intoxication are too trivial to be precluded.”
West frowned. “But you were able to alter your form,” he said. “You gave yourself the, uh, six-hooflengths. Like you did me.” The hand closest to me, the one on his thigh holding the sweating glass of doctored lemonade, shifted, as though it were aware of the proximity of the member in question and wanted to move closer to it.
I met his gaze. “Because you commanded it,” I said softly. “I cannot alter the form in which I am imprisoned.”
West’s gaze bore into mine. “But I can.”
I nodded once. “Do you wish it?” I asked, my tone still quiet and intent. “I can be anything you desire.”
“You are already all I desire. And more.” Forgetting himself, he leaned in and kissed me, and I happily kissed him back for several long, luxurious moments, before he finally pulled back, drawing his exercised tongue over his kiss-darkened lips.
He sighed and rested against the back of the bench again, swinging us a little with a small movement of his feet. I leaned back as well, and the two of us rocked and looked out over yard for a while, is confines just visible in the subtle illumination from the porch light behind us. We took a swig from our drinks in comical unison.
“You asked about Babylon,” he said eventually.
“Mm,” I agreed.
“What did you want to know?”
I shrugged, brushing our shoulders together pleasantly. “You said that it was lost in the end, but I am starting to grasp how just many centuries I have slept since I was bound.”
“Twenty-five,” West said quietly, a little awed. “Almost exactly twenty-five centuries, actually.”
This surprised me. “How so?” I asked.
“Well, by our calendar it’s 1950…” he began.
“The number of years since the birth of your murdered god.”
West smiled. “It’s funny you keep putting it that way. My pastor would probably have some thoughts on that. Mrs. Bell, too. She runs the Sunday school at the church up the way.”
“Murdered gods are rare,” I explained. I was teasing my master, but I was also curious about his god, and about what had happened to him. I expected it would not be difficult to learn the story—at least, from the point of view of the murdered god’s adherents. West did not seem to be a zealot when it came to his religion, so felt safe having a bit of fun with it. “Marduk,” I added primly, “would not have allowed himself to have been so susceptible. Nor Horus. Athena least of all, perhaps.”
“Those are very different kinds of gods to ours.” He paused. “You speak as if you have met them,” he suggested cautiously.
I mulled this a moment, taking a drink to buy time. “‘Met’ is not the right word,” I said at last. “We jinn have been… conscious of the gods since the dawn of time. We are… related.” I was not sure I could explain accurately in words, so I left it there until he asked me more.
“You’ve spoken more of Marduk,” he said. It occurred to me that he was expressing his curiosity without posing questions I would be compelled by my curse to answer, and a warm rush of affection coursed through me.
“You know I have an affinity for Babylon,” I said. “But I have drawn much closer to Marduk than any other god because of the curse. I feel his power, even now.”
West looked up at me, putting it together. “It is his magic that binds you,” he said. I nodded, and this time he asked a question. “Could Marduk remove your bonds?”
“If he exists in this world,” I said dejectedly. “I feel his power, but not his presence.” My lips drew tight together, as if I had tasted something unpleasant. “And Marduk acts for naught but himself.”
“Hmm,” West said. He gathered his thoughts for a moment, then continued with the previous discussion. “So. It’s 1950 now. Nabonidus—Nabuna’id—was king in the 550s B.C., I’m pretty sure—we can look it up later. B.C. is counting backwards from the beginning of our calendar. So that’s almost exactly twenty-five hundred years.” He paused. “It feels weird that it’s such a round number. Or, rather, such a square number,” he corrected himself. “I wonder if there’s any significance.”
“Not for a Babylonian,” I said slowly. “If it were sixty centuries, maybe.” I looked at him, meeting his gaze. “Are you wondering if… if it was not an accident I was woken at this time?”
West seemed taken aback by his own suggestion. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Maybe?” He shook his head and turned back to the yard and the dim stars above. “Coincidences do happen, especially when you’re talking years and calendars,” he said philosophically. “Anyway, to answer your original question, not long after Nabonidus, Babylon started getting conquered by this, that, and the other.” He bit his lip. “Usually I have a map on a slide when I talk about this stuff.” He made to stand, presumably to retrieve a book of maps from the small but extensive library-room I had seen earlier, but I stopped him.
“Would you like a map?” I asked.
He looked at me, eyes glinting. I smiled. He bit his lower lip. “Matim,” he said, smiling back, “show me a map of your world.”
“It’s like… like a relief map the size of a football field,” West said wonderingly, then added a surprised “ouch!” as he heedlessly set his bare foot down on the sharply defined mountain ranges that edged the western curve of Africa. He looked up at me where I stood near the winding cascades of the Nile, beaming with delight. “I feel like a colossus!” he said.
We strode together toward the lands I had once roamed as a being of shadow. Crouching, we studied the narrow neck of land where the Euphrates was nearly met by the Tigris, taking care not to crush the ancient cities of Sumer under our unshod feet. West gasped at the minuscule, teeming city of Babylon he beheld there, its rampaging people the size of an ant’s eyelash, and all the other surrounding cities half-merged into its relentless, reckless splendor.
“We can get closer,” I told him. “But first tell me your tale.”
He gave me a pained look, and I was unable to hide my grin. But West swallowed his need to explore and did as I asked. He began talking about the rise of the Persians to the east and their Medean allies. As many in my time had predicted, the Persians swept through all the lands between the rivers and far beyond, taking into their velvet fist not only the whole of the fertile crescent but even the vast, further domains of the old Egyptian and Hittite empires, though for both the days of their greatness were long past. Hardly had the Persians perfected their empire before they provoked conflict with the Aegean Greeks, leading eventually to the Persians’ conquest by hoplite armies from the west.
“The Greeks?” I repeated skeptically.
West grinned back at me. “What, were they too noble and civilized to conquer in your day?”
I scoffed. “On the contrary,” I said. “But they had no use for barbarians. The Greek cities were like brothers who would fight with each other in their own dining room while hooligans stole them blind and burned their house down around them.”
West laughed. “Well, you’re not wrong,” he said. He stood and stepped gingerly into the great middle sea, gesturing to the north of the Greek lands. “The conquerer was Alexander of Macedon. Greek in spirit, I guess, but not a proper Greek. He made Babylon his seat of power, and declared himself king of Asia.”
“Understandably,” I said. West smirked and carried on, sketching in a few words the Greek-influenced empires that resulted that were then in turn overcome by the upstart Romans from even further to the west. Of the Romans I knew little, though I had spent time in the lavish and proudly independent cities of the Etruscans to the Italian north. I shook my head to hear that these Romans had all but erased their culture, and that of the western Phoenicians too, in their bid for dominion.
West then turned away from the middle sea and splashed cautiously across the western ocean to show me the continents beyond. He expected these to be unknown to me, I think, and gaped when I told him I had fucked my way through four different Mayan cities on a recent journey. Well, it was recent in my own mind. I pointed them out to them where they nestled in the tropical, densely wooded lands south of the great curved gulf, their tiny building and tilling tools glinting in the sun. West crouched and stared down at the small, bustling cities, then up at me. “What made you go so far?” he asked faintly after a moment, the awe still palpable in his voice.
“I was returning to Shanghai, actually,” I said. “For the trip I told you about.” I shrugged. “I decided to go the other way.”
He blinked at me, and I could not fight off my grin. His eyes narrowed. “Jinn show-off,” he said.
“Puny mortal,” I taunted back. “Well,” I amended with a glance at his trousers, “not so puny.”
This time West’s cheeks reddened visibly. Ignoring both me and his own partly swollen member, he rose, stepped up on to the northern lands above the great gulf, and strode across to the continent’s eastern shore. “That’s us,” he said, pointing at the spot. “That’s where we are now.” I bent and examined the spot, intrigued. There were no cities, though there were hunters and a few small settlements.
I looked up at him. “These are your people?” I asked.
His expression clouded. “No.” He pointed across the ocean. “We came from back there, and these we… conquered and enslaved.” He cleared his throat. “C’mon,” he said, moving to recross the ocean. “Show me Babylon. You said we could get closer.”
My stomach twisted slightly—I think in his discomfort over the ill doings of his ancestors he had momentarily forgotten his power over me. Compelled, I strode with him in silence through the cool, ankle-high water if this imagined world. As we walked I caused the phantasm of Babylon to move toward us, growing rapidly as if it were swallowing all things, and soon we were passing through a simulacrum of the grand new Ishtar gates and pressing through writhing throngs toward the heart of the city itself.
Abruptly West grabbed my shoulder near a vendor of lamb’s meat and looked earnestly into my eyes, the flow of people and carts breaking around us. “Matim, I’m sorry,” he said. “You don’t—”
“Come,” I said calmly, grasping his shoulder and offering him an easy smile. “There is something more I want to show you.”
He shook his head slightly. “What more could there be?” he asked, as if I had already shown him all the world and his every desire.
Gratified, I leaned up and kissed him, and he eagerly returned the kiss, his rough, bristly chin rubbing tantalizingly against my smooth, ever-beardless countenance.
We separated, and when our eyes met again West had recovered a little of his wry demeanor. He gave me a half smile. “Was that it?” he asked. “What you wanted to show me?”
I twitched my eyebrows suggestively.
“You buyin’ or smoochin’?” the vendor asked irritably.
I bought us two small pieces of deep-marinated meat on a stick and took West’s hand, guiding us fleetly through the shifting, jabbering crowds until, far faster than we could have arrived on foot, we slipped across the wide bridge over the fast-flowing Euphrates and reached a spot on the high western bank, directly across from the looming Etemenanki ziggurat that dominated all the city’s sprawling precincts. West gasped.
“Is this—is this real? Is it what I think it is?” he asked, gazing around in wonder.
“It’s an illusion, of course,” I said, leading him into the gardens. “But it was real. I do not know what you think it is, however. Are you saying you know of this place, twenty-five centuries later and halfway around the world? The new kings would be pleased indeed.”
He nodded as he stared around him, still slightly stunned by the gardens and, I think equally, the vista of the great, vibrant complex of the city ranged beyond it, as large as his own city and in some ways almost totally unlike it. I took us further in as we finished our snack and cast the sticks aside. It was not a massive space: a walled-in square perhaps 160 paces to a side, nestled in the richest and most royal precincts of the city. If a house had been built on these grounds, few would have remarked on it. What had been built instead was a tiered garden bristling with trees, shrubs, medicinal and decorative herbs, and any other kind of greenery that was unlikely to be found in the heart of a massive, unforgiving urban landscape. Yet despite its situation in the very heart of a world of stone and brick all was lush and verdant. Heavy soil of highest fertility had been brought in from well-watered lands downstream, carefully graded with gravel for filtration. Irrigation, intricately applied in a manner men of four or five generations back would not have dreamed of, made possible what should not be possible. Taps and sluices and hidden mechanisms were maintained by gardeners who doubled as engineers. It was a feat of a kind wholly alien to the jinn, a testament to man’s uncanny and sometimes terrifying capacity to bend all, even the earth itself, to their bidding, at least for a while. What were humans not capable of, I had often thought, when they weren’t consumed by fighting and fucking. Now I understood I had not known the half of it: I had learned first-hand that even the very shadows could be enslaved to the mortal will.
We wandered the gently rising path toward the second tier hand in hand, ignored by the attendants. None but royals and their guests could come here, of course, but it was not the attendants’ job to challenge us and face painful death if nobles we were, after all. Insects buzzed past us, just as attentive to their own needs and as willing to let us see to ours.
West was still taking it all in. “It’s so—” He paused, hunting for the word, then finished, “artificial. In the best possible sense.”
I knew what he meant. “Mortals do sometimes surprise me,” I admitted.
“I was going to ask if you had anything to do with it,” West said. “But it feels like human magic.” He cleared his throat. “If that makes any sense,” he added.
I squeezed his hand. “It does, actually.” We mounted a short set of steps to the second tier. “It was built to glorify Babylon, and Marduk,” I explained. “And the ruling kings, naturally. It took a generation to build and perfect. There was actually an urban garden in Nineveh before this one, but it wasn’t as impressive and the trees in the upper tier kept dying. They copied it anyway, but of course they had to do it bigger and better.” I smiled ruefully. “That’s Babylon through and through. They couldn’t stand to have anyone talking about the Assyrians as anything but brutal bastards who’d rape their own asses if they could.”
West laughed. We passed into the third tier, swaying our clasped hands. It felt more secluded here, as though the aromatic plants baffled the sounds and feel of the tumultuous city beyond the garden’s walls. The sun shifted as we walked, streaking across the sky until it settled, low and red, over the Arabian horizon. In the east, the sky was already an inky black speckled with brilliant stars.
We came to a stand of trees, narrow-trunked but tall, surrounded by soft, spongy grasses. West drew me toward him and embraced me, and I happily reciprocated. In this verdant place, in the blush of the setting sun, he seemed to be almost painfully beautiful.
“I could make love to you right here, jinn,” he said, his low, rich voice curling through me as it always did.
I stilled at the words. My human heart began pounding loudly in my chest as I traced my thoughts over them, my vision filling with his lust-dark emerald eyes. Thanks to my gift I knew their significance for West.
I had fucked. I had coveted, and I had climaxed, with more men and in more cities than a hundred humans had ever known. On occasion I had fucked with tenderness, even fondness. But I had never before made love, and now, suddenly, and to my own astonishment, there was nothing else I wanted except that one, single, transformative thing: to make love, with this man.
My throat was dry. I swallowed. Then… I said the magic word.
“Please,” I croaked.
West smiled brilliantly, and it became physically impossible for me to keep my mouth away from his. I did not try.
We tumbled to the soft, grassy earth, not breaking our fevered kiss. A spicy peat aroma wafted gently around us from the fertile earth and the fragrant herb-plants crushed beneath us, but we did not notice. I rolled West on top of me, reveling in his slightly larger size in height and breadth. Our “curse”-enlarged pricks struggled painfully against our loose but sturdy Baltimore trousers; had we been wearing the gauzy pantaloons in which I had sought to seduce Baladan, and in which I had subsequently appeared to West twenty-five centuries later, they might well have torn through. He smelled so good, so intoxicating, it was as though my senses were purposely deepening just so I could appreciate him more.
West briefly broke free of our snog long enough to rasp, “Naked. We must be naked.” I took this as a command and even before his lips were again mashing desperately against mine he was pressing my warm, bare, almost hairless and perfectly made chest tightly against his thicker, hairier one as he held me under the waxing stars, our twice-too-large cocks rutting madly against our already-slick stomachs.
West wrapped his feet around my ankles and slowed our kiss, letting our lips and tongues enjoy each other in a more languid dance that was just as intense, as though the ferocity of our kiss had been redirected into deeper, more soul-aching emotions. I slid my hands along his long, tapered back, feeling strangely as though I had never truly felt a man’s embrace before, or truly been kissed. He had two small moles along his spine, one between his shoulder blades and the other further down toward his narrow waist, and my fingers kept finding them as I roamed his skin. This was not just any man, they said. This was West. My West.
Then West had pulled his wide and talented mouth away from mine and was drawing his tongue wickedly along my smooth jaw, down my throat, and onto my lovely chest. I shivered with pleasure as I laughed.
He looked up at me as he licked along the smudge of hair that marked my sternum, his eues full of mischief. He drew his tongue in long enough to say, “You taste amazing, you know.”
My massive erection jumped, thwacking his brawny chest. I stared down at him, my senses brimming with anticipation. “I should let you devour me,” I told him.
“I thought you’d never ask.” Then he pounced on my left nipple, sucking on it ruthlessly and causing me to cry out in delight as the sensations shot through me. He twisted and sucked some more, shooting lightning bolts of pleasure through me, then just as suddenly switched and attacked the other one.
“Stars and shadows!” I yelped. He looked up at me again, his eyes smiling as clearly has his mobile mouth, and began testing my nipple with his teeth. My cock smacked hard against his torso in the narrow space between us, spattering its clear juices over us both. “Where did you learn about that?” I gasped.
He sat up and grinned at me, pleased with himself. “Read about it,” he said. “Always wanted to try it.” He considered my reddened, abused nipples. “You should have one of them pierced. Did they do that?”
I stared at him, wide-eyed, and shook my head. “Do you want that?” I asked.
He shook his head in turn, then gestured at my prone form, his dark green eyes lit with desire. “I want this,” he said in that deep, beautiful voice. “All of this.”
Our gazes locked, and I spoke the truest thing I have ever said. “I am yours,” I said. I smiled, and West visibly took a breath, his muscular chest expending slightly as he absorbed my meaning.
“Fuck, Matim,” he said huskily. His expression seemed to all but say, I could fall for you. West did not say it, but my heart pounded louder as though he had, and my arousal and need for him deepened.
I wondered if it was possible for me. I was as old as the earth. A creature not of flesh but of shadow. I was as unlike West as any being born of the wide world. I had never made even the most casual of commitments to man or woman—even Esagil, the treacherous high priest, had had an brace of ex-hunting dogs he’d doted on, before I orphaned the beasts in my bid to escape. It struck me harder than ever, and quite painfully, that I had lived a long life of superficial pleasure. West lived his life toiling to increase human knowledge—I was no kind of man compared to him. Even Stanley was more noble on that score that I had ever been. I had had the eons of creation to become something that contributed to the world, and I suddenly felt as though I had squandered every millennium light had bathed the earth.
I could not deny what I felt for West. What I doubted was whether I was truly capable of acting on it. I had been trapped in human form for a mere moment, for all it had been thousands of years. Could I trust myself enough to put West’s heart at risk? Could I be sure that my emotions were true human emotions—real enough to be what West needed in a lover, a partner?
But I already knew the answer. Because there was no other existence for me, now. I was his. Jinn or human, lamp or no lamp.
My indecision faded and slipped away forgotten, a moment’s vagary. I held West’s gaze steadily, as steadily as he held mine, and I saw him absorb what I was feeling and what I could be to him, if time and the gods allowed.
Unexpectedly he closed his eyes a beat, and when he opened them they were full of fire. “We have to find a way to free you,” he said roughly. “I want to love you as a free man.”
Love. How alien to my being, or so I would have thought. And yet, there it was, my future, my self. “What I feel for you, I give you freely,” I said immediately. “In this there are no bonds and no compulsion. Only us.”
“I know,” West said, nodding once. “I know that, truly. But…” His expression tightened, resolve written on his brow and in the firm line of his mouth. “I will find a way, Matim,” he said, low and steady, like a man going to war. “I will release you from your bonds—I swear it.”
I smiled gently at him, though my heart swelled. Perhaps “love” was not so far a journey. “First keep your other promise and make love to me,” I said. “Make Atab the Monolithic proud of his successor. No—make him envious.”
West’s face broke into a grin, and he fell upon me, resuming our fiery kisses. Our thick, furnace-hot erections would not be ignored where they ground rudely and massively against us and each other, however, and soon he was mouthing his way down my already slicked torso. Then all at once the head of my newly mighty prick was in his mouth, and I called out wordlessly as his sensual lips and tongue writhed around the sensitive flesh.
I looked up into the stars as he took me in, and my heart skipped a beat. The night had deepened, and the white pricks in the midnight vale blared so bright their subtle colors seemed to bathe the earth below. What startled me, however, was not the vividness of the stars but the shape formed in them directly above me, framed by the silhouetted fronds of the trees marking the arbor in which we lay. It was the leering face of Mushkhushshu—Marduk’s Dragon.
I had never been visited with such an omen, and I struggled to understand how I could have been now, within an illusion of my own making of Babylon long past. Were the forces of that lost world speaking to me through my own fantastic mirror of that time and place? Or were these ferocious, primal powers loosed in West’s world, breaking through my visions with dire news from the reality I was now trapped in?
And what was the message, and whose was it—the hidden jinns of this time, or forgotten gods, or the dragon himself? Was it warning, or threat—or a simple portent of what was to come?
West knew nothing of my sudden fears, only that I had momentarily faltered in my responsiveness. Perhaps he worried that he had done something to displease me, because he abruptly changed tactics to one I had already responded to with intense delight the first time he’d tried it, earlier that night. Pulling off my momentous prick and taking it firmly in one hand, he slid down further to slowly and expertly ravish first my very heavy, pulled-up balls, then the even more sensitive skin behind it (what West had red-facedly called, delightfully, the “taint”); and then, there in that secret bower in long-ago Babylon, with wicked invasiveness and a clear determination to satiate me more debauchedly than I could ever have expected from him, he penetrated my hole with the point of his clever, talented tongue.
The stars shifted and the earth moved, and all thoughts of the Dragon of Marduk were drowned in the glorious, Euphrates-like deluge of enthralling pleasure that was all I knew until, feverish with slow-building euphoria, we exploded our prodigious spend as one all over each other’s heated, manly forms. It was the second time we climaxed, exquisitely, together that night, and not nearly the last. Being a jinn does have its benefits.