‘We haven’t always been at war with the djinn.’ Asra said.
We were in a part of her chambers where she distilled her cuttings into various philtres, powders and pastilles. She asked me to stand in the doorway, and to alert her if I experienced any symptoms. It was an act of politeness that I did not ask what those symptoms were.
She put on chain mail gauntlets and tied a leather apron around her waist before she started to work. Between reactions that produced a flash of thick green smoke atop a blue flame and a series of musical notes, she started to talk.
You know the histories. If you do not, then it is best left to the reader to imagine such things. My work rarely involved the djinn. After the first war, they were sealed behind the Wall of Ritual, inside the pocket dimension where the angels had put them. There were escapees, some of whom yearned for the desert and the laughter of children travelling on the winds. Some sought revenge on the most beloved of Allah’s creations.
Those were the ones that drew my attention.
The ones that I needed to hunt down.
They were power itself. Able to change shape, dimension and substance of a whim. They were twisting dervishes of possibility. They were individuals, some capricious and delightful, others less so. They know how to give a person what they want and make them suffer for it.
I will speak of one that I was tasked to hunt.
Her, I remember.
The Caliphate were losing men at the borders of the desert. Individuals at first, thought to be the price of life spent in the place that was built to test the faithful. The sands held pitfalls for the careless, and sometimes it took the bravest, hardiest of men.
The latter attacks were bolder. Stretches of sand fused into glass by bursts of flame, skeletal remains crumbled into ash, limbs torn and cast aside.
It started to leave survivors.
It did not leave them unscathed. It would amputate limbs and cauterise their eyes into boiled jelly that fell down their cheeks. It would leave them insensible, soiling themselves at the voice of another human being or locked inside themselves.
When the message came, Hajj was away across the ocean so my father was reluctant to send anyone.
I begged for the honour.
I had not seen a djinn before. If it meant my life, then it was the will of Allah. I had studied them, trained in the ways that had been developed to fight and kill them, to send them back across the Wall of Ritual.
My faith in my father’s wisdom was not as steadfast back then. He advised me against it. He had a school of scholars and magicians who would be better equipped to work from afar in defeating them.
‘I know what is expected. If you do not send me, people might think you sentimental.’
He smiled and folded his hands together.
‘If a man should not enjoy his children and seek to offer them counsel and safety, then he is denying Allah’s greatest gift.’
His eyes glinted with a paternal pleasure in my desire to prove myself.
He had no choice. That is what he told himself.
I took a caravan from the Caliphate. My materials were in a small trunk. I had my scimitar and spear within reach as well as blades in sheaths on my wrists and calves as well as a dagger on each hip. These were hidden beneath white robes, designed to reflect the worst excesses of the sun.
We stopped each night. The merchants gathered in fires, close to their wares and I was invited to dinner with each of them. It may sound counterproductive, but in certain situations, it is more useful to know who you are. Or think they know.
Not me, the young woman eager to prove herself but Lady Asra.
The Blade of The Caliphate.
I would join up with a patrol of scouts and we would follow its trail. They liked to sleep in small spaces. There were caves to the north that would be worth investigating. My expectations were to track it, bind it to servitude and then send it home.
The woman sat with her children, tending a small fire. She wore a chadri but her eyes were hidden beneath a net of fine mesh as her children ran and played around her. She tended a pot of fragrant curry and looked up at me.
‘I am honoured.’ she said.
Her voice was soft, little more than a whisper. I smiled and pulled my scarf from my face.
‘You know me?’
She nodded and gestured to the space next to her. I pulled the hem of my robe and sat down.
‘Of course I do. You are Lady Asra.’
She stirred the curry and picked up a bowl, spooned in a hefty portion and passed it to me. She gestured towards the breads cooking on the hot stones.
‘I like that you don’t stand on ceremony around me.’
She nodded and called her children. Widad and Majida. The curry was delicious, thick chunks of meat floating in a thick sauce that carried
She fed them and made sure that they ate all that she served. Once they had finished, she led them back through to their caravan and returned a few minutes later. She sat down and served herself a bowl of the curry.
She removed the net from her face. She had lean, pock marked features and full lips. Her eyes were voluminous, capturing the light from the flames and drinking it in. She gave me a thin, cold smile before she began to eat.
She slurped, daring me to say something. My irritation grew faster than my intuition and I got up to leave.
‘That is how we see you.’
It was a voice that crackled like flames, the rush of thin, wavering terror that swept through me made me reach for my blades.
‘No, don’t. I could turn you to ash in an instant. There’s no amusement in that for me.’
My materials were in the trunk.
The djinn had been with me before I had reached the desert.
She replaced her net across her face.
‘Why have you done that?’
She giggled, a high shivering sound like a scream deferred but not denied. My stomach lurched, and she waved her hand at me.
‘I’ve not poisoned you, silly girl. That would have been too easy.’
I flexed my fingers. I wondered if I could throw a strike at her eyes from here. She sat there, composed and amused by my horror at her presence.
‘No, I go where I please. I grew bored with killing. Once you’ve tortured one, you’ve reached the limits of what humans can experience. There’s no nuance to you. You’re just sacks of meat and gas, who wallow in filth and lie to themselves.’
Her voice rose and fell in patterns that disturbed my ears and my mind.
‘Then why are you here?’
She served herself another bowl of curry.
‘Well, I had to see for myself, didn’t I? I really just came to play with you, but you’re overrated. All of you. Your poetry has no more depth than the choking noises a child makes you slit its throat.’
I looked back towards the caravan. She laughed, and I fought tears. I was thwarted, toyed with and had watched her feed the children before she took them inside and murdered them without a change in expression.
She laughed again.
‘See, you’re very smart. Well, a pet that can do a series of amusing tricks, but close enough for a human.’
I gritted my teeth, prayed for guidance and courage. She raised her head to the sky.
‘He’s not going to help you. He allowed me to ride a few feet away, knowing that at any time, I could burn you alive and you would die, agonised and ignorant. Pray all you want, if He were to choose anyone to favour, it would not be you.’
She got to her feet and smoothed down her chadri and bowed low, touching her fingers to her forehead.
‘I found something to take away with me that I imagine so few have ever seen.’
I managed to get words out, vomiting them up past my blind, desperate fear and hatred.
‘What is that?’
‘Your fear. You being outwitted by someone so thoroughly and not even been given the luxury of death to avoid the sting of it.’
‘And still having no idea who you are.’
I shook my head, and she laughed again.
‘You do not understand, Djinn. Letting me live will be your mistake. I swear to it.’
She touched her fingers to her forehead and then shuddered before collapsing away. I got to my feet, pulled the net from her face and sough to feel for any signs of life. She was cold to the touch, slick with the rot that the djinn had held at bay for the purposes of disguise.
I meant what I said. I walked to her caravan and opened the curtain. The scent of blood and bodies lost to the blithe release of death. Their lifeless eyes shone in the dark, mocking my failure and my arrogance. I turned away and went back to my caravan.
I left instructions with my driver that I would not be proceeding any further. I left without announcement. My imagination provided me with a chorus of mocking assertions and observations that followed me back to the Caliphate.
My father awaited me. I took one look at him and wept. He came over and held me.
‘Now you understand. I prefer to subdue them from a distance. The last time, it took the will and determination of men and other races to defeat them. Angels who crossed the heavens to aid us, and even then it was barely enough.’
He kissed the top of my head.
‘You will never know the sacrifices that were made.’
I cried, as much for his admission of vulnerability as to my grief.
I was stunned as she removed her gloves and apron. She smiled and poured herself a glass of water.
‘I believe that was the first time I have seen you speechless.’
I recovered and bowed, eager to show my respect for her candour.
‘No, it does not measure up to the tales told of you, Lady Asra.’
She frowned and took another sip of water before she gestured for us to return to the garden.
‘No, I killed other djinn. That one, though, I had to wait a little while for.’
She suggested that we sit in the garden awhile. After such a story, it was a lovely idea.
The sun streamed in, blue skies above us, almost too much to look at.
‘He does love us, most of all.’ I said.
She blinked and wiped at her eyes.
‘Yes, that’s why he tests us so much. I’ve learned that love far too often to disbelieve it.’
She lowered her chin to her chest and closed her eyes.