Asra said that she was restless. Such a thing made me uneasy, but she gave a soft smile and assured me that a walk would be suitable recreation. I felt a warmth bloom in my face and agreed that it would be acceptable. We did not walk through the main gates of the palace.
We returned to the garden and walked over to the far stone wall. She turned a statute with both hands and a portion of the wall slid to one side, revealing a passage. She glanced over her shoulder and raised her eyebrows.
‘Tell me you’re not surprised?’
I chuckled and shook my head.
‘No, I am not. I hope that we will continue our conversation.’
She lowered her eyes and pursed her lips. We walked together, and she raised her hijab to cover her hair before we came to a wrought iron gate that she slid to one side and we found ourselves in an abandoned courtyard, heavy with hibiscus and vines clinging to the walls.
‘Another garden?’ I said.
She looked around and raised her eyes to the sky.
‘Father has always taken a pride in the architecture. There are many ways to enter and leave. I discovered this place when I was fifteen.’
The plants gave off a heady, seething fragrance that made my head swim with each breath. It differed greatly from Asra’s garden in being less controlled and purposeful. I looked at her as she raised her head and felt that she looked more at home here than anywhere else I had seen her.
‘Do you come here that often?’
She shut her eyes and reached out, bent forward and inhaled a blossom that protruded from a snaking assembly of vines that had made itself at home against the far wall.
‘No, I do not. Too many memories.’
She relinquished the blossom and stood up, sighing with a melancholy delight. She wiped at her eyes and fixed me with a gentle, questioning gaze.
‘Which is what I will speak of as we walk. I trust that you will recall what I tell you.’
I touched my hand to my forehead and bowed to her.
‘Would you wish me to?’
She grinned and bowed in return.
‘To remember something is distinct from the act of recording it. Let me tell it and then, I will let you decide what you capture.’
Without quill or ink, I decided that I would listen and enjoy the pleasure of her confidence. She had trusted me with her stories of blind, white mewling creatures from beneath the earth, duels of honour and her considered philosophies on the lovers that she took.
We walked along the teeming streets of the Caliphate and she started to speak.
The inn was known as The Stranger’s Rest. It was worn but cared for, oiled wooden floors and a straw roof with a fire that never went out, fed with attention to keep the temperature at a constant balmy atmosphere, designed to induce a pleasurable lassitude of the limbs.
I came here, not on any business of the Caliphate, but to be amongst people. My hijab and countenance drew attention but after a few visits and a judicious application of coin, my presence was simply noted as being an ordinary event. I would sit at a table at the back, eat and drink, read by the wavering flames and dancing shadows. I would practice my skills of observation and contemplation, a form of invisibility available to anyone should they consider its applications.
Those skills found him.
He was sat by the fire. His head had been shaved to stubble but his cheeks and chin were dark with beard. He wore a black linen surcoat and heavy boots, supple leather polished to the texture of churned butter, shining by the light of the fire. He was writing on parchment with a fine quill before he looked up at me. His eyes reflected the flames, the yellow and orange of the flames added notes of burnt sugar to the dark brown, thirsting pupils.
We gazed at one another. He picked up his goblet and gestured to me with it. A smile played on his lips and I raised my own goblet to him. When he smiled, his teeth were white and even, rare for anyone outside of those with the wealth and knowledge to practice such things.
He picked up his goblet, held it by the rim and strode over to me.
‘I’ve seen you here before.’ he said.
He was tall, broad across the shoulders and a thick chest with a taut waist before flaring out to thick thighs. He raised his goblet to his lips and I saw how his thick, strong fingers circled the cup. He stared at me over the rim as he drank.
‘I cannot say the same.’ I said.
His accent intrigued me. There was a formality to his speech, underlaid with a gruff, deep softness and I sought to place its origin.
‘You would know if you had. I am difficult to forget.’
I chuckled and gestured to the empty space on the other side of the table.
‘A touch arrogant of you, when we are strangers to one another.’
He sat down and rested his thick forearms on the table. He had a wide, sensual mouth with full lips that curved into a knowing smile.
‘We were strangers to one another. I am Armand.’
I gave my name and he hid his reaction well.
‘Then we are most definitely not strangers any longer.’
I cupped my chin in the palm of my hand and sat forward. He carried the scent of warm leather, musk,an oily sweetness that carried hints of citrus and cinnamon within it. Clean skin beneath but not so insecure or effete that he drowned himself in oils and tinctures.
‘You have me at a disadvantage, Armand, because you know of me and yet I do not have the same pleasure.’
‘I fought in the tourney at Draper’s Hill. You were sat with the king three days before he choked on a shred of mutton.’
It was the eyes. He had lifted the visor of his helm after helping his downed opponent and regarded me for a moment. He had swung a light blade, metal folded thousands of times and wielded with the skill that a scribe writes symbols on parchment and he had travelled far to compete here. A commoner once, who had fought and parlayed his gift for invective into a title, lands and position.
‘You’re no tourney knight, sir.’
He sat back and smiled.
‘And you’re no stranger, Lady Asra.’
I had a blade in a sheath on my forearm, another at my left calf and if required, I could use my fingers to stab at his eyes or throat. Such preparations came to me as naturally as breath but he shook his head.
‘I am between decrees, milady. I hope that it is the same for you.’
A shiver of ambiguous anticipation slid through me. How rare a pleasure it was to be sat with someone who knew who I was, and did not care beyond what his senses told him.
When you spend a lifetime learning not to be seen, there is a delight to be taken when it happens and it is welcome.
‘What were you writing?’ I said.
‘Poetry. It aids contemplation and allows me to explore nuances of feeling otherwise denied men of my station.’
I smirked and picked up my goblet.
‘You travel as much as any bard, shame that you do not play a lute, Armand.’
He chuckled and nodded.
‘Parchment and ink take up less room than a lute would. I travel light.’
He had not offered for me to read it. So often, an insecure man would list his qualities, betraying a lack of confidence in them. He answered my question and did not press his position. A warmth broke in my chest, spreading down to my stomach.
‘May I read a verse or two?’
He shook his head and a jolt of surprise dashed through me.
‘No, but I will read it to you.’
I glanced around the room and then fixed him with an intrigued gaze.
He smiled and shook his head then raised his eyes to look upstairs.
‘No, not here. A perfect location is close though, if it would suit you.’
It did suit me. My breath was heavy in my lungs, dizzy with a novelty of anticipation that intoxicated me with more intent than any liquor that would pass my lips.
The room was small, set into the back corner of the inn and furthest from the stairs. As a tactical gesture, it was appreciated, but his motive was simple intimacy and privacy. He had set candles on the table, white wax dripping in gelid tentacles from its white columned flesh.
Despite the lack of space between us, he maintained a polite distance. His hunger lit his eyes from within, brighter than any collection of flames. He bade me sit upon the bed, covered with furs piled high – different pelts and textures that were sold at the market a few streets over.
I sat in the centre, watching him as he poured us both water from a flagon into two small goblets, passed one to me and retrieved a sheaf of letters from his satchel and sat on the edge of the bed.
‘This, be the moment
Where we surrender
And within that,
Find a victory
Within one another
You supine and aglow
Your flesh bearing
Begs my demand
An assertion of sweet
Where your power
Is found in travel
To a place
His voice was soft and low, a confident burr that travelled from the pit of his stomach through my ears, travelling through me like a sweet narcotic. When he finished, my cheeks were flushed and my heartbeat gained a new pace, beating in my chest faster than the grasp of my control. He folded the paper and replaced it in the sheaf then turned his head and looked at me.
‘Would you like to hear another?’
I tried to speak, but sighed, letting it carry the force of feeling ahead of me.
‘You speak softly, Armand.’
His eyes narrowed and a slight grin raised the corners of his lips.
‘A poet always welcomes the opinions of his audience, Lady Asra. Thank you.’
I shook my head, and removed my hijab with a maiden’s uncertainty, slow to hide the shudder that afflicted my fingers.
‘No, Armand, I would have you come closer for the next reading. Such a delicacy with words should not be spoiled by the need for volume.’
He kept his expression neutral but the glowering light in his eyes gave voice to his intentions as he moved closer. Waves of febrile heat rolled off him in flames as he laid on his side, reposed in animal comfort as he retrieved another sheet of parchment.
He whet his lips with a sip of water, gazed into my eyes and then began to read.
‘The heart is made of found things
What brittle clay
Covers like armour
Is not the content
I would dash it to heart’s floor
With passionate force
Not to break it entire
But to release the
Dark, potent wine
Of your desire
Feel your nectar
Soak my beard
Not to consume
Let us transform one
You as vessel
For the acts of fleshly
Pleasure made holy
Sacrament without vows
Only animals know
Yet I offer a carnal wisdom
With which to renew you
We moved towards one another. Our mouths met, in a dance as fierce as battle, as soft as a bee draws pollen from a flower. His strong hands cupped my face and my hands went to lift his jerkin from his chest, stroking along the soft fur and taut flat stomach with a petting motion that made him gasp.
He growled and taking my hands in his, pushed me to the bed and eased both of his thighs between mine, pressed his hips forward as we kissed. His teeth closed around my lower lip and I groaned with delight. He lifted away his right hand and took both of my wrists in his left. He drew himself upright and attended me
‘I trust you will show me fair measure if you object.’
I giggled and rolled my eyes.
‘It’s almost like you know I’m armed.’
His right hand brushed down my stomach, over my right thigh and his rough palm rested appreciably against the curve of my sex. His index finger made a lazy curling motion and my words evaporated into a breathy sigh of contentment. My hips thrust upwards, and he plucked the robes away. There were men who saw every touch as a reason to jab and force, their instincts made blind and deaf by passion. He had an animal urgency but when his fingers brushed against the damp curls, his touch grew slow and gentle. I pushed against him and he found me oiled and open to the rough strength of his hands.
‘So are you, milady.’
He pressed and I opened to him, to everything that he offered. I would be made full of him, in every possible sense of the word.
‘I will spare you the rest. Some things are better experienced or recalled.’ Asra said.
The slow tide of people around us held the strange quality of illusion. Her recollection had captivated me. Had my quill been in my hands, the capture would have been inconstant and incomplete. We were at the market and she had offered to show me a stall which sold the finest writing materials in the caliphate.
‘Was this a single encounter?’
She smiled and shook her head.
She reached into her robes and retrieved a folded piece of paper.
‘No, and there will, our lives and the will of Allah permitting, never be a last.’
She passed it to me.
‘Let this be captured accurately and I leave the rest to your sensibilities.’
I opened it and read the first line.
The heart is made of found things