Heart of Flame
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by Janine Ashbless
Description: And on the One-Thousand-and-Second night, Scheherazade told this story? By day, Taqla uses her forbidden sorcery to move freely about the city of Damascus in the guise of an old sage. Her true identity known only by her faithful servant woman, Taqla is content with the comfortable, if restrictive, life that keeps her safe from the control of any man. Until she lays eyes on a handsome merchant-traveler. Suddenly her magical disguise doesn't rest so easily on her shoulders. When long-time widower, Rafiq, hears that the Amir's beautiful daughter has been kidnapped by a scheming djinni--and that she will be given in marriage to her rescuer--he seeks the help of "Umar the Wise" to ensure he will be that man. Yet as he and the disguised Taqla set off, he senses that his prickly male companion is hiding something. In a moment of dire peril, all of Taqla's secrets are stripped bare--her fears, her sorcery and, worst of all, her love for Rafiq. Yet the princess's life hangs in the balance, and there is no running away or turning back. Even though passion may yet betray them all... Warning: Scary monsters and creepy ruins in the desert--check. Pagan gods that demand blood-sacrifices--double check. A handsome hero who looks good in a robe and even better out of it--oh yeah. Check, check and check. That's worth a heroine dropping a veil or two.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: January 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [440 KB]
Reading time: 283-396 min.
Taqla, wishing to make magic, had shut herself within an inner chamber whose carved shutters looked only into the courtyard of her house and not out into the street. Not that it was, as these things went, a particularly terrible magic. It was only a spell of illusion, an entertaining trifle. But Taqla felt horribly self-conscious on this occasion and she'd instructed her housekeeper Lelia that she wished to be left undisturbed.
Carefully she fanned the brazier of charcoal to hot white ash, then cast upon it frankincense and a bunch of green sage soaked in a rare perfume. She should not be doing this, she knew. Her own shame told her that. But stronger than the shame was the coiled sense of longing low in her belly, the ache that would not be appeased. She wanted to see him again, Rafiq the Traveller. The memory of him would not leave her alone and had kept her awake for half the night. Now her skin prickled with anticipation.
It's harmless, she told herself. She was not dishonoring herself, for no one would know. She just wanted to look.
As the smoke began to rise, she spoke the ancient words that compelled it, and instead of dispersing about the dim, blue-tiled room, the plume gathered and thickened, hanging in a compact cloud. The sage twigs shrivelled and the smoke became a milky knot, roiling in the air. Taqla emptied her lungs and then stepped forward to plunge her face into that cloud, drawing the smoke into her as she inhaled. As it burned her throat, sweet and acrid at the same time, she fixed her mind upon her recollections of Rafiq. The man running ahead of her over the rooftops. His body pressed to hers in the dark. The look in his eyes as he beheld her naked.
When her breast was nearly bursting, she exhaled again and the smoke flowed out from her lips, carrying her memories with it. This time the cloud took on human shape. Tinted with color as in life, it formed within moments into the image of Rafiq, standing upon the tiles before her and dressed as when she had seen him. He seemed quite solid, though Taqla knew the simulacrum was as intangible as smoke. He seemed to live--breath moved his chest and his eyes shone as he blinked, his gaze meeting hers. Taqla couldn't help the warmth that rose in her cheeks, or the little laugh that broke from her lips. The likeness was perfect, though what was discomforting was how hard his handsomeness smote her this time. She had to remind herself that this was nothing more than an illusion. There was no need for her to feel so shy.
When her father was alive, he would often, when relaxing, surround himself with dancing girls formed of smoke this same way.
"Rafiq," she whispered, enjoying the shape of his name on her tongue. He didn't answer--he couldn't speak, of course--but he smiled a little in response and she felt her heart bump. Taqla circled him slowly, taking the time to examine and appreciate him as she had not been able to do in the flesh, and though Rafiq simply stood there and let her, he turned his head to watch, his speculative expression as alert as her own.
Oh but he was handsome, she thought. Not bulky but strong. Sun-darkened skin framed by the neck of his shirt. Disordered hair flecked with dust from the abandoned house. Angled black brows. A mouth that hinted at humor and sensuality. Lean hands more callused than a merchant's should be. And a ready, confident tilt to his stance.
Coming full circle to face him again, she stepped backward to take in a full-length view. Rafiq instantly stepped forward, closing the space between them.
Despite herself, Taqla jumped a little. She laughed again, half nervous and half delighted. She knew that the simulacra had no real souls or wills, but they took their personas from those who created them and could appear autonomous. She couldn't help liking the way the quirk of his lips was darkened by the glint in his eye. It made her feel flustered and self-conscious and guiltily excited. As he eased forward, she moved back, retreating until her shoulders butted up against the chamber wall.
It's not real, she told herself, feeling her breath coming fast and shallow.
Soundlessly he placed his hands on the blue tiles to either side of her, not touching her but penning her in. His face inclined over hers. She could almost imagine she could feel his breath. She was deliciously aware of how much taller he was than her, how much broader his shoulders. She could feel the sudden hot trickle of her moisture, like a crack in the dam that held back her hunger.
Is this any way for a sorceress to be acting? complained the voice of pride inside her. Is this how you squander your talents? But it was a very small voice, and drowned by the roar of much fiercer and more primal needs. She was hooked like a fish on her own desire, ensnared by his eyes and by the way a tiny movement betrayed the biting of his inside lip.
For a moment Rafiq's gaze slid significantly down from her face to her breasts, and then he crooked an eyebrow as if pointedly posing a question.
"You want...?"she whispered.
He smiled--and that did incredible things to her insides. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss those lips, even as she knew she couldn't. But that unvoiced suggestion... Well. She'd bared herself to him once already. Was it so difficult to do so again?
"Well, if you really..." Her blouse crossed over at her breasts and tied with long tails about her waist. Blushing even more warmly, she pulled the knot open and loosened the cloth to expose the warm cleft between her breasts, the curving swells of soft, firm flesh. Her breasts felt heavy and her nipples tightened to hard points as they kissed the air. She looked up into his face nervously.
Rafiq's lips parted. She glimpsed the tip of his tongue playing across the edge of his teeth. Then, spreading his hands wider on the tiles, he stooped, making as if to kiss her bosom. Taqla gulped air, her breasts rising to meet his mouth. Of course she could feel nothing, but she could see the dark bulk of his head and the sweep of his lips, the individual hairs--soft or bristly--of his beard and brows and downcast lashes against her soft skin. She slid her hand across her belly, questing down between her thighs.
The door to her left shook under a fusillade of knocks.
Taqla jumped like a cat caught hooking goldfish from a courtyard pool. She flung her hands out, waving, and the false Rafiq broke up into wisps of aromatic smoke. "What?" she shouted, too loud but feeling rattled.
"Mistress?" The door quivered against its bolt again.
Hurriedly she knotted her disordered clothing about her. Her pulse was racing, and she was a little shocked to realize how deeply she had been immersed in her flirtation. The outside world had all but vanished. "What is it, Lelia?" she asked as she opened the door. "I said not to disturb me!"
The older woman on the other side frowned at her. "There's a man at the door wishing to speak to Umar the Scholar, mistress. His name is Rafiq and he sent this gift in token of his respect." She held out a small silver dish--in the centre was a pearl with a gray, lustrous surface.
Taqla tugged her clothes straight once again, her heart thumping hard. She bit her lip, picking up the pearl in order to put off speaking. It rolled around in her palm. It was a good size, she thought. It wasn't an ungenerous gift. "You'd better show him in to the madafah," she said. "And make him coffee. I'll meet him in a few minutes."
Lelia pulled a face. "Do you know him, mistress?"
"Zahir met him once."
"He looks like trouble to me."
Taqla wrinkled her nose. "He was."
She went into her own chamber in order to change into the guise of Umar the Scholar, laying the pearl in a small chest. She was embarrassed now by how foolishly she had behaved under her own enchantment, and it was a relief to take a moment to catch her breath and straighten her thoughts as she stripped off her rings into a brass tray. She wore many rings when she was in her own shape, each one significant to her calling--green jade from distant China, black lava from the island of Sicily, lapis from the Afghan mountains, smoky glass from Alexandria in Egypt, white gold from some barbarous infidel realm to the north, pink coral from the Gulf of Ayla. One was of very old green bronze and etched with Hebrew characters. As she laid them down, she glanced into her mirror, which was a fragile artifact of the old Roman Empire, a slice from a bubble blown in glass, with the interior coated in lead so that the glass reflected. It showed her her untidy hair and her strange green eyes. Her normally full lips were pursed to an anxious line. She breathed hard down her nose, annoyed with her uninspiring reflection and more annoyed with herself for being so flustered. So Rafiq had come to her house--what of it? He was not coming to see Taqla the Sorceress--Taqla the Whore as he would think of her, crouched among the moldering sheepskins--but Umar the Wise. He must have asked his way around the Souk of Glass to find the scholar's house.
She reprimanded herself once more for the way her disguise had been undone by the unthinking press of his body against hers.
Undressing, she laid her feminine clothes aside and shut her eyes, picturing the form of Umar she had perfected over the years, once even examining the corpse of an elderly man found drowned on the riverbank to get the flaccid musculature right. Passing her hand over her hair, she turned it from black and thick to gray and sparse with a few words. Umar had crooked legs, knobbly joints, prominent veins in his hands and calves, shrivelled genitalia, a sagging little belly and a white beard. Apart from his height, he did not resemble the real Taqla in any particular, but he was the very picture of a scholar. She donned a robe and, over it, a big white woollen cloak with a hood, and then wrapped a headcloth about her head and jowls in the fashion of a desert dweller. She'd learned from her last encounter with Rafiq. If her disguise was that fragile, then she wanted the maximum amount of cover from her clothing.
Leaning on a stick, she made her way downstairs to the madafah, the reception hall. This was roofless but shaded by high walls of white plaster, and a pool sprinkled with rose petals cooled the air still further. Rafiq, she saw at first glance, was sitting on the guests' cushions, quietly watching as Lelia heated water over a charcoal brazier and warmed the coffeepot. He was wearing much better clothes today; his jacket was of embroidered silk. Clothes to impress a stranger with whom one wished to negotiate, she surmised.
Her spell of shaping shivered but held firm and she smiled. Good. She was in better control of herself now. A handsome face--and oh, he was handsome, just as the smoke-Rafiq had been, but she couldn't let herself think of that--would not be enough to upset her purposes.
Rafiq rose as she stepped out from the shadow of the arch and they both bowed and made their greetings. Taqla told Lelia that she would take over coffee-making duties, which was a signal honor for the guest but caused the middle-aged woman to retreat with a pointed, openly warning glance entirely inappropriate for a housekeeper to cast upon her venerable master. Taqla clenched her teeth, thinking that she would have to have another forceful talk with Lelia when they were alone.
Host and visitor seated themselves comfortably on the cushions and made small talk while Taqla ground the pale green coffee beans with a brass pestle and mortar, roasted them in a flat pan over the coals and brought them to the boil three times, adding first cardamom then saffron, before transferring the liquid into a clean warmed pot for pouring. The whole process took some considerable time, during which they talked in a leisurely manner about Dimashq and the lands about, enquired after each other's health and families and shared a deal of gossip--all without once touching upon the news that burned upon the lips of everyone in the city, which made Taqla conclude that this was exactly what Rafiq had come to consult Umar about.
She drank the first half-cup herself, as was customary, to show that it was not harmful.
Finally, once he had sipped from the tiny cup of thick black coffee and made noises of appreciation at the flavor, Rafiq said casually, "Have you heard the news from the Citadel?"
"Nobody in Dimashq has not heard," Taqla answered, savouring her brew. "The beautiful Ahleme stolen away by magic in front of her father's very eyes. The amir's great rage and distress. His promise to any man who might return his daughter to him and restore his honor. I hear that half the young men in the city have bought the first camel they can lay their hands upon and ridden out to search for her. Dimashq echoes like an empty cistern."
"I was there when it happened."
"Really?" She glanced at him over the rim of her cup, her interest sharpened. "Is it true that she stepped into a painting that then burst into flames? As did the magician?"
Rafiq shook his head slightly. "She only touched the painting, and then vanished. I don't think she'd have been so foolish as to walk into it herself."
"Anyway, that's why I'm here to be honored with your hospitality today."
"Really?" Taqla's fist tightened under the sleeve of her robe. "Why is that, my friend?"
Rafiq laid his hand apologetically on his breast and the gesture made her heart thud, remembering his eyes upon her nakedness. "I mean no disrespect, believe me. But since the girl was stolen by magic it seemed to me that the best way to find her must be by magic also--and that all those men racing out into the desert and to the coast are wasting their time."
Taqla narrowed her eyes. "But I'm only a scholar, friend, not a sorcerer. I study the action of glass lenses upon light and color, and I study the movement of the stars. True, I can cast a horoscope, but that is hardly magic."
He nodded. "Yet when I asked about the souks, you have a reputation as a scholar who knows where to find things that people have lost."
"A ring, a needle, a donkey...small things only. It's often a question of encouraging the owner to think clearly, that is all."
"And I met your slave Zahir in the streets yesterday, and something he said made me think that you might have some knowledge of the hidden arts."
"Zahir is a fool," Taqla growled.
"He's certainly rash. I might well owe him my life. I'm not suggesting you are a sorcerer, only that there are many strange objects of power in this world, and that you might in your wisdom know how to make use of them."
Taqla stared at him, trying to ignore the glow of pleasure at what he'd just said about her actions the previous day, wondering how much she could trust him. "I might advise you," she admitted grudgingly.
"I would be forever grateful."
"How grateful?" she wondered.
"Well." He wasn't perturbed. "I do have certain private resources at my disposal. But should I bring back Ahleme from her abductor I would have many more. Her father promises her hand in marriage, and that he will make the rescuer his grand vizier. And since he has no male heir..."
"That would put you in a very powerful and profitable position then."
"It would." He smiled a little, but his eyes stayed serious. "Of course you might harbour those ambitions yourself, my friend, in which case I am only using up your valuable time."
"Oh, I'm no adventurer--look at me." Taqla indicated her aged body with a sweep of her hand. "Nor fit to be the husband of a woman so young and lovely."
"Then are you willing to aid me? Name your price."
She tilted her head, putting aside the monetary question. "You're determined to find her?"
"It would be the greatest achievement any man of Dimashq could dream of."
"Ah." She chewed the inside of her lip. "Is the amir's daughter as beautiful as they say, then?"
Rafiq nodded. "She is..." he rolled his eyes skyward, "...quite extraordinary." A quick shake of his head conveyed awe. "Not much like her father to look upon, but her mother came from Aksum, they say."
"Ah," repeated Taqla, wishing that it didn't feel like glue were settling over her heart. Stupid girl, she reprimanded herself. Who did you think he was after? Why are you upset that he should be thinking of another? Still, she had to ask, "Doesn't it offend you that you won't be the first man to lie with her? Her abductor will most certainly have enjoyed his prize by now."
Rafiq frowned. "It's a pity, certainly, but her marriage to me will restore her honor." His mouth quirked. "Here I am mooning over the daughter of the amir as if she were some dancing girl--and as yet I've taken not one step toward finding her."
Taqla pushed away the sludge of disappointment that felt as if it were gumming up her insides. Be sensible, she told herself. You've lost nothing; you never had it to start with. Think of the task at hand. Brushing the tip of her nose with her index finger, she asked, "What color was the smoke?"
"When the magician burned and vanished--what color was the smoke? Yellow, like sulphur? Blue? It makes a difference."
"Oh." Rafiq shut his eyes to revisit his memories, and Taqla could only stare with painful fascination at the dark sweep of his lashes. "There was no smoke," he said decisively, looking up again. "None. Not even when the scroll burned. Flame but no smoke."
Taqla felt her spine crawl. "Oh," she said. "That's not good news. Are you sure?"
"What is it?"
"He wasn't a sorcerer. That was no earthly flame. He was a djinni."
"As Mankind was made from the earth at our feet, so the Djinn were made of hidden flame. Fire without smoke. It means..." She blinked at the coffeepot. "It means she will be all but impossible to find. He could have taken her anywhere. Anywhere in all the world, you understand? Those men on their camels will be searching in vain. She hasn't just been smuggled out of the Citadel or the city. She's gone."