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The sun sets on the flat, peaceful wadi of the Azawagh plain. There are no trees or mountains, hills or sand dunes in this part of the world, and navigation by day is ill-advised. The hot dry winds rolling over the beautiful flesh-colored sand flats cause my dark blue tent to billow lazily, carrying away the slender coils of smoke from my cooking fire just beyond the entry flap. While my three camels relax in the shadow cast by my temporary shelter, I digest my dinner of roasted sandgrouse and await my carafe of water to come to a boil in preparation for qahwa.
My slender, white fingers, still bearing the beautiful but fading marks of henna decoration from the holiday, caress over the yellowed pages of a book my salt merchant friend gave me as a gift back in Timbuktu. Every time my modest caravan arrives at that city, I only do business with that particular family and have been doing so for the last three centuries. They know enough about what I am not to question my immortality, but they’re also gracious enough never to ask who I am. Perhaps they have suspected, but it hardly matters – every season I arrive with camels laden down with salt blocks from the Mediterranean, and every season they buy every ounce with raw gold, host me for the festival of Eid al-Fitr, spoil me with delicious food and drink for two weeks, and then send me on my way again laden down with riches, books, spices, bags of ground qahwa, and enough rice to last for months if I’m careful. I have never once been turned away or treated with disrespect, and despite the chalk white color of my skin against the earthy brown complection of theirs, I’m treated like I’m part of the family.
I’m thinking about this as I read my book, my eyes trailing right to left along the page to follow the flowing script of this new language called Arabic. Well, it’s not new, not even to this region, but I only decided to actually learn it a century ago. I’d been getting by on Berber and its dialects just fine, but with the spread of various lines of Mohammed and the cultivation of Morocco to the north, I felt it was time to educate myself and modernize if I ever wanted to maintain my trade connections. I suppose it all comes down to money in the end, if only to buy more of this delicious qahwa.
The water’s bubbling away in the carafe by now, and I carefully take it away from the rack over the flames and set it on the sand, making sure it’s sturdy and still before I scoop some of the fragrant, course, black grounds into it. The water takes on the bitter, rich flavor immediately, but I let it sit for a while as I go back to my book. There’s only so much time during the day to read, and I’m not about to waste my precious lamp oil if it isn’t an emergency. Just a few more minutes and I can get to the end of this chapter.
Once the sun sets behind the horizon and the sky flashes with pinks and oranges and golds, I sigh and tuck the book away back in my saddlebag. The coffee should be ready by now, and I carefully pour it out into a small steel cup, enjoying how it delicately bubbles and froths. It’s lively today which means it will be deliciously strong, perfect for keeping me well awake as I get used to traveling again. After two weeks of blissful feasting and idleness I must force myself to suddenly acclimate well to a leaner lifestyle, and the buzz from the qahwa definitely helps. I can’t drink it quickly, but I do take sips now and then as I begin to strike my campsite. The camels, when they see me unfasten the tent ropes and gather up the canvas and poles to pack away, start grunting and waking up from their nap. The next oasis is one more day’s travel from here, but they don’t look too thirsty just yet – they drank yesterday, and none of them have the teary-eyed look of a camel in desperate need of water.
When I get around to my beasts, I greet each of them affectionately, fussing over their head and ears as they rumble happily at me. Camels aren’t the smartest creatures in the world, but they don’t mind that I’m not human, they can go far longer on far less than any other pack animal, and are as complacent as you could wish when not overburdened. I’m always careful to distribute their packs evenly so walking isn’t a chore, and the camel I ride, named Tammt, flicks his ears when I approach him. He’s older than the others and has gone with me on these trips many times north and south, and I’ve kept him so long because he always keeps the other animals calm.
I gently pull on his halter and fasten it behind his jaw as he chews his cud, and even when I head back into the mostly-disassembled tent to fetch his blanket and saddle, he hasn’t moved an inch when I come back out. I place the blanket over his entire back, then perch the saddle – which is itself just a wooden frame braced with padded arms – over his hump, set a comfortable sitting pillow on top of that, and lastly I fasten the saddle straps about his chest and beneath his hips. The other camels are equally easy to load up with eryaman escort their burdens, and I tie long lead ropes from their halters to Tammt’s saddle. They’re willing enough to follow along, but I’d rather them not wander off with all my gold if they suddenly see water. Camels get a little extra stupid when water’s nearby.
It’s fully night by the time I’m ready to set out and a little later than I’d like, but I’ve been making good time so far on this circuit. Sitting up on Tammt’s back, I find the north star and head towards it, pulling my robes close around my body and my hood up over my long, black hair to keep me warm. I can feel the qahwa in my belly keeping me awake and alert, and I settle in for a long and uneventful night. There are some evenings when I can get some reading in, but by the look of things the sky tonight will be overcast until dawn. I guess I should have expected that; I was only just barely able to find the necessary constellation to orient myself before we set out. A shame – the next chapter looked promising.
Some hours into the evening, I’m roused from a light doze by the distant sound of clipped hoof beats. They’re coming from the north which makes sense – there’s an oasis in that direction, the one I’ve been aiming for. No camel runs like that, and no gazelle is heavy enough. It must be a horse, and they require watering regularly, the fussy things. Given the steady, quick pace, I would imagine that someone’s riding it. I can only hear one animal, but my ears have been tricked before.
Very carefully I reach back and take my bow from its place on the saddle, untying the straps to free it and its quiver. I brace the butt of the wooden bow on the tip of my boot and push down, bending it until I can loop on the string and secure it. Tammt doesn’t seem bothered, but he honestly wouldn’t be until he had at least three lions chewing on him at once. I pull out two arrows and notch one, letting the second one hang down by the fletching from my fingers in readiness as I watch the northern horizon. My heartbeat quickens but I slow my breathing – there’s no need to panic until there’s something real to panic about. Still, it’s unusual for anyone to be out racing on the Azawagh. This region is so dry and desolate that getting lost on a horse is certain death. Even losing your way on a camel is dangerous. This rider must really want to be here. That, or he really doesn’t and wants to get out. If they aren’t a threat, I’ll camp early and offer him and his horse food, water, and shelter. If they are a threat, I’ll kill them and butcher the horse. And maybe the man, too.
One can’t be picky out here.
Minutes pass and the hoofbeats grow louder. I can make out the shape of the horse and rider now, and when they see me they slow their race to something more sedate. The wind carries away whatever sounds might be coming from them, but a split in the clouds reveals a slender, elegant steed with entirely black fur and a long flowing mane and tail. The rider is dressed in black robes, with the hood up and a cloth pulled up over his nose to cover the bottom half of his face. A bundle is tied to the back of the horse, draped over the rump, and as I grow closer still I notice the slender split hooves and legs of a gazelle. He must have brought it down out by the oasis. Perhaps we are closer than I thought. Wouldn’t that be some good fortune.
At a certain point I pull Tammt up to a halt and he grumbles and grunts, shaking out his ears. The other two camels lazily come to a halt behind him, lifting their heads to take a look at the newcomer. The rider halts his horse and dismounts, leading the elegant steed by the reins as he closes the last few yards towards me. His slender hand lifts and pulls down the fabric covering his mouth and nose, and he smiles up at me handsomely, pushing back his hood to reveal a long central crest of black hair brushed back, standing in clear contrast to the close-shaved sides of his head and the kohl lining his beautiful eyes.
I blink, then grin with pure delight before I look down at Tammt, giving him the command to lie down on his belly. The large beast rumbles and obeys, happy enough for a chance to do nothing. He’s not even all the way settled before I slip out of the saddle, toss the bow and arrows into the sand, and run into the rider’s arms. He hugs me right off my feet, laughing with honest and unguarded happiness as he spins me around. My hood falls back around my shoulders and he presses a kiss to my cheek, and then to my lips, humming happily until the kiss breaks. “Oh L’laiya my love, I’m so happy to see you!”
My cheeks feel hot despite the chilly night air, and I wait until he sets me on my feet before saying with some confusion, “And I you, Marut, but I thought you would be meeting me in Tunis this year.”
“Well, I was going to,” he begins, walking back to his horse’s saddle to unstrap the gazelle and heft it over his shoulder, “But then I got word of something that just couldn’t eryaman escort bayan wait all those months.” I give him a suspicious look, and he rolls his eyes. “Fine, I couldn’t wait.” Of course, after that he walks right past me and sets the gazelle down on the ground. “Say, you’ve got firewood, right?”
“Tell me why you couldn’t wait,” I counter, folding my arms over my chest. If he’s gotten himself into trouble again…
With a sigh he remains crouched by the gazelle. “I was so hoping to tell you after dinner.”
He grumbles and stands up. “Fine. This latest crusade happening up in Constantinople… well, it’s just ended. The city’s been sacked and the Christians have taken all the treasures in the vaults for themselves.” The hairs on the nape of my neck prickle, and before I have a chance to ask, he says, “Including your key.”
My eyes grow wide and I grip at my head in shock. “No!”
He nods, rubbing his hands together. “Yes. And I know where it’s being taken to. If we can get there before the treasure’s dispersed to Rome, we could get it back.”
I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. “We destroyed the bondage from Egypt. I remember we did. Surely it’s powerless by now.”
Marut gives me a look. “You know as well as I do that the key worked on you without need of the collar and all the rest. I swear that the golden cuffs and collar – all that stuff was some ostentatious show, and unnecessary. That one key was different, and whoever has it has power over you.” I look unsure, but he approaches me and places his hands on my shoulders. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of your key for centuries, and now might be my first real chance at it.”
There looks like there’s more to this story, and I peer up at him until, at last, he spills the rest. “It would seem, well, in all the time that’s passed since our stay in Byzantium and now, your key miiiight have gained a reputation as being a reliquary, said to contain the tears of an archangel.”
“A reliquary? Are you serious?”
He smirks and caresses my cheek. “Well, obviously it’s ridiculous. But these Christians really seem to love their relics and icons and things. If you really wanted to you could smash a tent pole and sell the splinters as ‘fragments from the holy cross’. That’s one of their favorites.”
I blanch. “Oh… please tell me you didn’t…”
Marut looks guilty, then crouches near the gazelle and starts to butcher it. “What? I needed money, and it made the pilgrims so terribly happy.”
Rather than begin to engage him, I lift my hands in defeat and head back to the other camels to start unpacking. Dawn is only a few hours away, after all, and I’m not going to push them to the oasis as the sun rises. Tammt and the other two rumble as I unload them, and I drop off some firewood by Marut before I get to work on the tent. The horse, oddly, seems happy enough to remain where it is, relaxed and calm despite being downwind of both of us. Usually the scent of my skin is enough to send any horse into a frenzy – they can smell what I really am, despite the fact that I can’t attain that shape anymore. Well, who knows? Marut’s always had a way with horses, and maybe he’s taught this one to be a little more placid than its brothers.
By the time I have the tent erected and my goods stored safely within it, Marut has a fire going outside. A metal rack supports grilling steaks, and I settle in next to him as he occasionally sprinkles on seasonings and sings for me. Oh, how I’ve missed his singing! A good portion of the year I’m off in the desert, hauling goods by camel north or south, and I only get to see him at the end of the circuit. It’s suited us well enough for the last few centuries, but I’m starting to grow bored of the monotony year after year.
To be fair, the unchanging nature of this profession had been a huge comfort at first. For most of my life I’ve been enslaved in one way or another, passed from master to master, from city to city, throughout the ages. Things have changed for me so fast and so often that I grew to detest having no control. I could hardly keep up as humanity changed all around me, so I rejected all of it as soon as I could and took up the one lifestyle I was most familiar with – the caravan. It’s what I’d gotten used to when I’d first been captured by humans in Sumer, and I see the appeal even now. There is no life more free than that. Borders mean nothing, one’s past means nothing. Not even one’s identity means anything most of the time. So long as you treat your fellow travelers out here with courtesy and generosity, they will do the same for you.
In this part of the world, across this enormous desert, nothing has really changed in almost a thousand years. The tribes conduct their lives in just the same way, surviving through the seasons in the same way, singing the same songs, eating the same food, stopping for water at the same oases. They believe in different gods now, but their religion escort eryaman fits in with their culture rather than defining it and changing it. This faith called Islam was integrated without a lot of fuss, and I like most of it, recognizing some things from my ‘homeland’ along the Euphrates. I’m not as big a fan of the fact that both I and Marut appear in its holy book, unflatteringly I might add, but as no one expects a small creature with red eyes and pretty black hair to be that horrific monster from their scripture, well, it hasn’t much affected my day to day life.
We talk and catch up about little things as we cut up the meat and eat it. Marut asks me all about my journey south earlier this year and my time spent in Timbuktu with my friends. I slip into the tent and carry out the various books I was given, and he cleans his hands and looks through them with interest. He’s really taken to Arabic, far more than I have, and he’s a voracious reader. Despite his long-held dislike of Persia, he seems to have softened a little on that stance now that so many works of philosophy and poetry are being created there. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a few books in his saddlebag to keep him occupied during his trip down to meet me.
He’s not as forthcoming with what he’s been up to, but I expected that. Some of his dealings are convoluted in the extreme. He likes to keep an eye on all the major powers in the region, especially given how the Christians insist that we’ve all somehow stolen their holy land out from under them (after they’d all just been converted to Christianity, no less), and so keep coming back again and again to the Levant. I even think Marut was involved in one of the earlier crusades, the one where Saladin retook Jerusalem, but I can never get a straight answer out of him one way or another. It’s hard to keep Marut away from warfare for too long, despite his fallen state, and I’m not sure if he considers that a virtue or a vice. Either way, he does admit that he’s been to Constantinople after its sacking, and his sources are all certain that my key has left the city.
After dinner I offer to brew up some tea, but he counters that with an offer of wine. One downside of the spread of Islam is that many have abandoned the taking of alcohol, so it’s hard to come by the drink in these regions. The vintage Marut has brought with him is one I’m familiar with from Byzantium, a fine, red wine that pairs excellently with the gazelle we’d just had, and we head into the tent to pour ourselves some of it. And when I say some of it, I mean absolutely all of it. By the time the bottle’s empty I’m laughing hysterically at something stupid, but the way Marut’s describing it is unbearably funny. The fact that he keeps nearly falling over as he sits nearly robs me of breath, and I lay on the blankets and rugs as I try to regain some semblance of calm, looking up through a slit in my tent’s roof to see the brilliant stars in the dark night sky.
I only vaguely notice the sounds of the fire being put out with sand and the animals being tied down for the night before Marut comes back into the tent. His tall, slender body is still beautiful and elegant, his movements smooth and inviting to the eye. I can only see him in silhouette, but it’s enough to lift my pulse, and I can tell he’s looking at me in the scant moonlight that filters into the tent. My eyes narrow with pleasure as he softly comes to kneel next to me, his slender, black-nailed fingers caressing along my hair to my temple, cheek, neck, and down into the neckline of my white linen thoab tunic.
My chest shivers as I feel his hand slide along it, feeling along the slender, flat plain of it and the hardening nipples. Surely he can feel my heart beating beneath his palm, and very softly I begin to purr. That makes him smile affectionately, and a similar vibration leaves his throat as well, pitched slightly lower than mine.
“I’ve missed you, L’laiya,” he breathes, and when I turn my head I can see within the black material of his serwal pants that his cock is starting to waken. Without a word I roll onto my side and place a hand on his hip, holding him still as I nuzzle and kiss at the growing, hot shape hidden by the material. He groans softly as he cups my head with his hand and unlaces his pants with the other. The moment his cock is free I shift forward and take it into my mouth greedily, gripping at his sagging pants until my hand’s a fist and the fabric’s bunched down around his thighs.
I can feel his hands move, one sliding down to pull up the back of my thoab and reveal my own serval pants, by now half sagging down my hips. He pushes them down my thighs to expose my backside, then moves his hand back to his mouth to spit into his palm. When his touch ventures intimately between my tense cheeks to my star, his caress is wet and warm, slow and firm. The sensation makes my toes curl in my boots and I moan around his cock, moving my hand to grip at his bare velvety skin. A single digit slowly presses into me, hooking and curling and thrusting shallowly, and I start to squirm. I can hardly help it – it’s been weeks since I’d left the city, and despite having sold my other ‘services’ there nearly every night, since then I’ve had no intimate company.
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