Shadow and flame

By BRK  Patreon Contact Page Twitter
5 parts
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Part 1

Babylon. The people who live here believe it to be the greatest city in the world. Arrogant fools. They smugly rank their ancient metropolis, with its mighty walls and towering ziggurat, its vast and crowded markets filled with the goods of a thousand towns, its priests and poets and engineers and astronomers parsing the mysteries of the heavens, above all other capitals, despite the fact that no man among them, from king to slave, has ever seen any great city but their own. I know the truth, of course, for I have walked the narrow streets of Jerusalem, lounged in the baths of Sardis, and dined with the tyrant of Athens. I have gazed upon the crumbling marvels of Memphis and Abydos and the charred ruins of Susa. I have wandered the elegant precincts of the Zhou far to the east, and the thriving stone cities of the Mayans in western lands beyond imagining. No mortal man has seen what I have. I alone know the truth, that Babylon is indeed the greatest city in all the world—but they’ll never hear it from me. These mortals are prideful enough without my help.

Those of you who are truly discerning might perceive how my grudging admiration for this great city that has become my home, after long centuries lingering among the monuments and habitations of man, exposing my senses to them, sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, betrays to you my darkest secret. With the tale I have to tell it wouldn’t remain hidden very long in any event, so I might as well come clean. The truth is, humans captivate me. It’s … not a common sentiment where I come from. Their petty desires and sudden passions have always repulsed my own kind. The jinn, you see, are creatures of shadow, at one with the elemental powers of the earth, seldom deigning even to take solid form; we crave balance among all the mindless competing forces of the world, matching life with death, and death with life, all in selfish pursuit of our own damnable serenity. Within that mentality, you can imagine how the reckless burgeoning of humanity is viewed with trepidation and suspicion. Those of us who have bothered to take notice of mankind are likely to view their advancement and fecundity less as progress admirably facilitated by ingenuity, and more as a kind of infestation.

Me, I can’t get enough. Maybe that was my undoing.

I was newly returned to Babylon after a long, feckless sojourn in India. As I’d peregrinated through the cities and towns there I’d noticed my attention being drawn to all the attractive, well-built men who seemed to be everywhere, catching my eye with a wink and a smile as I moved among them, shaped like an exotic Chaldean; and I’d realized that I was in serious need of sexual gratification. The jinn, of course, have no need of fucking, seeing it as a primitive necessity of the lower orders; but I… I’ve developed a taste for it. No, more than a taste—a craving. Maybe it’s all the time I’ve spent in human form. Sometimes, when I’ve been in the shape of a man for long enough, it seems almost as though the human body was designed for nothing else but the pleasures of the flesh two people can share with each other. Holding a man just with my eyes, appreciating his strength, his smile, his raging manhood—just that is enough to make a fire burn within me that most of my kind will never know. And there are so many paths that increase that giddy, uncontrollable pleasure. The caress of a finger across hard, thick muscle. The brush of lips along a firm, bristled jaw. The touch of a tongue—stars and shadows! Sometimes just to be a tongue would be enough. Or a mouth, to take in a thick, turgid cock, to lavish it with every pleasure of tongue and lips, and drive my human partner to mind-melting release.

So I returned to Babylon. Not because the men of India were lacking in appeal—quite the contrary—but because there was someone there I very much wanted to taste. The last time I was there a very comely young nobleman named Baladan, newly arrived from a nearby province, was drawing the attention of everyone in court, and before long his uncommon beauty, from his broad shoulders and long legs, barely hidden in loose, gauzy-white trousers, to his dark lashes and wicked leer, had snared everyone around him—even me. I tried to keep my distance, skirting the edges of Babylonian aristocratic society as I gazed hungrily within, but it was no use—I was drawn to him like a compulsion. My reaction to him was so powerful that I mistrusted it. As a jinn I value balance, and his uncanny allure unsettled me. I left, hoping to allay my unwanted desire. But he had sparked a need in me, and my time wandering, increasingly feeling myself surrounded by male beauty, only seemed to stoke it. He had bewitched me, a jinn, with nothing more than a sidelong look and a crooked grin. Finally I resolved to return to Babylon and confront him. At least, that’s how I phrased it to myself; but when your blood catches fire for someone, “confront” and “fuck” are so close as to be indistinguishable.

I flitted across Persia in shadow form, filtering into Baladan’s rooms in the dead of night until I found myself beside his bed, helplessly admiring his dark, naked form. The wide bed lay in the center of the open, airy room, away from windows and the faint, silvered moonlight. I wanted to see him and drink him in. A fat bronze oil lamp, a work of fine craft, stood on a nearby tripod, and with a single thought I lit its fuel-sodden wick. The little tongue of flame it produced danced and swayed playfully in the gentle night breeze, and I was grateful to it, for it cast Baladan’s lithe, sleeping form in shimmering amber and gold. My desire for him swelled, my reason eclipsed. I ached to touch him, to taste him on my tongue. I could not bear to remain shadow, and I shifted, resuming my accustomed human shape, clothed as always only from the waist down. I was so aroused that already fully tumescent as soon as I took flesh, the veins in my stiff cock seeming to pulse with the beating of my human heart. My skin prickled with heat, and my hands twitched at my side as I took in the raw, overpowering beauty of the man before me.

The moment I took human form Baladan’s eyes snapped open, and I took in a sharp breath. It was like he had somehow sensed my shadow form watching him, and had been waiting only for me to take physical form. Was it possible that he, too, was longing for my hands and lips to caress his warm, supple skin? But those eyes… those eyes were glittering with something like malice in the meager lamplight, and there was a slow smile spreading across that exquisite face that I did not like at all. For a moment we locked gazes with each other. Disquiet grew within me. Go, something in me warned, but I wanted him too much. I expected him to speak, but the sound of words, when they came, originated from behind me, and they were not the lilting tones I had heard before from this handsome, young, conniving noble. No, this was the harsh, sonorous voice of a man I had spent a decade avoiding at all costs.

My blood seemed to freeze. Emerging into the light near the foot of the bed, chanting brutal spells of binding and enslavement from a cuneiform linen scroll in a formal, practiced cadence, was Esagil, the high priest of Marduk—the one man in all the world of men with knowledge enough of magic to capture a jinn. Twelve months past he had sworn to the king, Nabuna’id, that he would to deliver him a mighty jinn, bound and pliant, to save Babylon from the growing threat of all-consuming Persia; and now here he was, making good on his unspeakable vow.

Horrified, I tried to shift, but I was rooted to the spot, trapped in my human form and unable to move. I stared at Baladan wide-eyed, and his grin widened as Esagil’s rough voice rose and fell in the otherwise silent chamber. Without speaking Baladan sat up in bed and tilted his back toward me, and I saw to my dismay that his back was painted or tattooed with sigils and signs—all designed, no doubt, to make himself irresistible, and not only to mortal men. His knowing eyes raked casually over me, and I burned with impotent humiliation as his gaze lingered on the impressive erection my simple trousers were doing little to hide. I tried to speak—stars and shadows, I tried to roar, remembering the time Judean soldiers had come to kill me, the jealous brother of my favorite fuck having gone to the king with the surprisingly apt lie that I was a demon masquerading in the guise of a handsome, beardless young man with skin the color of sand and eyes red like the setting sun; and I had grinned at the nervous soldiers and their shivering spears, and without warning loosed upon them a bellow so great and so loud it was like the earth breaking apart in rage, and the terrified men had vanished from the square before I was done—those that had not crumpled to the ground before me in a dead faint, that is.

But I could not speak, never mind roar. Every particle of my human form was severed from my control. From the moment I had taken human form I was caught in a prelaid trap. Spells uttered before I had even arrived had ensured I was caught like a fly in amber, fixed and unmoving within this fleshly form, with more preset spells separating me from control over my elemental powers.

I glared at Baladan, but he only smiled at me. His eyes flicked meaningfully to the lamp, which stood between me and the still chanting Esagil, then back up at me. He arched an eyebrow to see if I understood, and suddenly my gaze flew to the lamp, taking it in as if for the first time. It a masterwork of tempered bronze, exquisitely made to be both practical and lovely to look upon; but what I had not seen before was that every inch of it, from handle to spout, was inscribed in curling zephyrs and eddying whorls of finely wrought cuneiform lettering, and though I could not read much of the tiny swirls in the dancing lamplight I could see, amid protective spells designed to keep the lamp itself safe from harm, words I did not want to see. Words like bind and command and master and eternity—words that etched my own fate, repeated over and over again around every surface of the damnable lamp.

I wrenched my gaze away from the lamp, back to the man who had laid this trap for me. He was almost vibrating with glee. He climbed gracefully out of the bed, unashamed of his nakedness, and to my surprise I saw that he was as aroused as I was. He moved behind me, brushing on hand along my bare, muscled arm and snaking the other around my midriff, casually stroking my well-chosen form while I could do nothing but stand there, as stiff and rigid as a stone-carved statue, while my mind churned with wrath and fear. He smelled of linseed oil, presumably from having filled the lamp before I arrived, and musk, and also faintly of figs for some reason; I thought I might never enjoy a fig again.

His hands loosened the ties of my thin trousers and they fell to the floor, pooled around my ankles. I was literally laid bare before my libidinous tormenter. I could feel the heat of his arousal, the urgency of his need for me mingled with many other needs and lusts that did not involve my naked, near-perfect ass, but foremost now in his mind was the need to take me, to make me his and burst his seed within me. Esagil’s incantations seemed to be intensifying, as if he, too, were building toward some kind of climax. My stomach twisted. In moments, I would be bound to that lamp for all eternity, in thrall to anyone who possessed and used it. My days as a literal free spirit, roaming the earth at a whim and indulging in the pleasures of mortal life that set me apart from my own kind, would be over in the time it took for the gray-bearded old snake to intone a few more lines of ancient Akkadian.

I cursed my own waywardness, and the ways of my kind as well. The whole thing was made possible because jinn like to alternate between riding the inchoate forces of the earth and resting, bound to some inanimate thing, preferably of stone or metal. Somehow the priests of Babylon had discovered this truth in ages long past, and their long study in magic had crafted a means to reproduce this bond and make it absolutely unbreakable. My fellow jinn had learned of this, and some even came to warn me, to lure me back to the wilds far from the precincts of men; but I scoffed at them and sent them away, thinking it ludicrous that anyone would dare, or that anyone could possibly succeed in trapping me. Now, I paid the price for my hubris, and for my hedonistic pursuit of the pleasures that came from taking flesh and living among mortals.

Baladan was slightly taller that my human form, and when he drew himself in close, embracing me tightly from behind, I felt the damp head and shaft of his cock burrow between my upper ass cheeks and nuzzle the base of my spine, sending shivers of longing through every inch of my stilled, trapped body. Then Baladan brought his lips close to my ear and said in a low, quiet voice, “You will soon be mine… jinn.”

With a flash of insight I understood, and I felt an unexpected swell of pity for poor Esagil standing there in his formal robes, his rheumy eyes fixed on the scroll in his shaking hands. He would not be fulfilling his vow after all. He and Baladan may have conspired to ensnare me, the old priest using magic to discern the lusty jinn among the human sheep and painting Baladan with sorcerous tattoos to build desire into compulsion; but Baladan had no intention of handing this prize over to Nabuna’id. Before the month was out there would be a new king in Bablyon, and in the moments I was not serving as a plaything for the still-painted usurper I would see my powers turned against every enemy, Persian, Chaldean, and Assyrian alike. My helpless obedience to his commands would only serve to stoke his ambition. He would grow to be a true human monster, a tempest of death and devastation, until my own kind overcame their loathing of human affairs and restored the balance of the world by destroying Baladan and possibly Babylon itself—and, without doubt, me with it, the heart of the cataclysm and the catalyst of Baladan’s escalating evil.

Baladan, still naked behind me and wrapped possessively around my rigid body, started to slowly drag his thick, leaking cock back between my cheeks, then he pushed forward again, all while nibbling along my unbearded jaw from behind. There was something strange about that, but my thoughts were disrupted as he repeated the thrust, languidly frotting my ass as if to prime me for the purposes he had in mind for me. I shuddered, my exposed cock twitching with the aching lust flooding through me. Only moments before I might have pulled this tall, beautiful man down onto the bed on top of me and urged him to drive his impressive fleshly spike deep inside my always-tight ass. Now… now I wanted to light him on fire, only my powers were masked, as beyond my ability to command them as my body, bound up like an Egyptian mummy.

I closed my eyes—and the mere act of doing so made my heart start to pound hard inside my chest. I wasn’t completely cut off from my body—I had moved my eyes before, and just now I had closed them at will without any of the hindrance that kept my feet rooted to the floor and my hands stilled even from the flexing and fisting my mind was commanding them to do to no avail. What if… what if the masking of my elemental powers was incomplete as well? I could sense the tenor of Baladan’s emotions; maybe there was more for me to feel. And even as the thought came to me, causing me to start exploring the forces I normally commanded like a tongue searching for a cavity, I found it. The chink in my unwanted armor. Ignoring Baladan and his insistent cock, ignoring Esagil’s escalating incantations, I opened my eyes and trained them on the steady tongue of fire burning in the very lamp Esagil’s spells were binding me to. I poured every jot of my will into that flame, knowing it was my only hope, and my beloved Babylon’s, too.

Suddenly the flame leap up in a thin but massive column of fire, soaring up high over our heads. Unable to move or look up I stared at the flame even harder, feeding every bit of elemental force I could command into it, and the column of fire grew even bigger, brightening with impossible heat. My eyes flicked to Esagil, who was gawking up at the towering flame uncomprehending fear—then his eyes met mine, widening with understanding, and he returned his gaze to the linen scroll in alarm and began hastily reading out the very last words, loud and fast, all pretense of ceremony cast aside. I pushed my power through that narrow crack I had discovered, and like a lake trapped by a faulty dike the crack widened, and I felt the restraints that bound me body and shadow shudder, the widening flaw portending sudden and violent freedom.

Baladan’s scowling, unnervingly handsome face filled my vision, and my nerves jangled and my mind recoiled at the knowledge that his deeply affecting beauty was all artifice, a trick of magic inked into his skin in an act of malicious ambition. I hoped he saw in my eyes the unmitigated contempt I had for him. “Stop!” he cried, his face inches from mine. “I command you to stop!”

My heart quailed as I realized I must obey—the magics that bound me to his commands, as master and lighter of the lamp, were all but complete. I stared back at him, sickened and furious, and I saw a look of triumph spread across his face. And yet—a new understanding came to me, and I would have grinned defiantly at him if I could have. Baladan saw it, somehow, and his gleeful smile faltered.

As commanded, I stopped feeding the monstrous flame. Instead, never taking my eyes from Baladan’s, I reached out with my mind to the lamp itself… and the tripod on which it stood. With the slightest effort of will I tipped it onto the bed. It went up in man-high flames in an instant, turning the room from a pleasant, idyllic bedchamber into a firing kiln the space of a single heartbeat. Esagil screamed and crumpled to the ground, his heart giving out on him, and the linen scroll rolled toward the enormous flames, caught, and a second later was totally consumed.

Baladan twisted to gape at the fire, then turned back to me and screamed, “No!!! Noooo!!!” Convection buffeted us—the unnatural fire was hot enough that we’d be roasted in seconds even if we didn’t actually catch fire, but all I cared about was stopping the threat posed by Baladan’s control over me. I’d forced myself free from my restraints enough to sneer at him. If he’d only had the wit to command me to stop the fire—I saw the realization dawn on him, and before he could speak I exerted everything I had left in me to wrest my arms free and shove him, hard, directly into the flames. He barely had time to shriek in dismay before his flesh was melted away and he was nothing but bones.

I tried to move, but most of the trap still held me. Desperately I tried to free myself, either to run or shift into my natural shadow form, but the trap had been too powerful, and I had no time. The conflagration I had created was so huge, and so hot, that before I had any more time to struggle it was upon me, and I burned with an agony I hope never to know again.

Part 2

I slept. For years uncounted I saw nothing and felt nothing, as if my mind drifted in a featureless expanse that was neither night nor day, nor any part of the physical world I had made my home, nor the shadow world whence I came. I was hardly at all aware of the passage of time: my thoughts were suspended, as was my whole existence. I lived, but in limbo, arrested and stilled, waiting for rebirth.

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 shy, 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.

Part 3

I studied my new master, my face a mask, as he smiled up at me from where he lay half-prone against the wooden crate. Though he was obviously intoxicated those emerald eyes were alert and fixed on mine, and cold tingles slithered up my spine as I reflected how some men succumbed to the wiles of alcohol through clear-eyed pursuit of deepest desire, their inhibitions stripped away.

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?”

“I cannot.”

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!”

Part 4

My master—whose name, it now transpired, was “Sutton”—reacted to the intrusion into our hitherto self-contained world with wild alarm and dismay. He dropped my hand as if burned and took two quick steps back from me. He eyed my half-naked form with what looked like terror.

“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.

Part 5

There were two kinds of kisses that had always been my favorites. The first was when I ravished a man and he succumbed to my allure at the first brush of my lips along his, cleaving himself to my need, and all but promising from the first touch of tongues a banquet of feasting on his delicious mouth followed by a long, effortless, and satisfyingly perfect fuck. The second was when my evening’s conquest responded to my first sallies by pushing back and audaciously seeking to ravish me, initiating an all-consuming battle for control that might trade fiercely back and forth across the battlefield of our mouths and bodies for hours, both of us reveling in our determination not to to be the first to yield the night to the other. This latter scenario was a special fascination of mine from my earliest human encounters, not least because the outcome was not always predictable. Sometimes such ferocious displays smoothly subsided into an equally energetic submission, the man roaring like a lion and clawing my back as I pushed my hard flesh into him; but for other men the game of dominance during foreplay signaled versatility, the trading of aggressive kisses leading to a likeminded trading between fucking and being fucked, and for still others the contest for control was a true struggle by a man determined to assert authority over me—mouth, muscle, and ass. Discerning the signs of which kind my latest manly paramour might turn out to be was a source of recurring amusement for me, and long after I was sure I’d learned all the signals and tells, a young courtier with a cocky smile or a shy-seeming carter with a cock of steel could still surprise me.

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 wheel 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 her self 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 house 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.

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