Disclaimer: APH belongs to Himaruya, and the countries factually belong to themselves. Or their bosses and the people that live there, rather.
A/n: Part of a fic swap with Tamer Lorika. It's not quite what she asked for, but I still hope she likes it.
Sadik was not sure how many days he had been walking through the desert. He had stopped counting them what seemed like an eternity ago. He did not even know why he continued on his death march… Pride? He had none of that left now. Folly? Oh, certainly, yes. Whatever the reason, no matter how many times he wished to just fall to the rough, scorching sand and allow it to embrace him and take him away, bury him deep where none could find him and Death on his horse could ride away with his soul, some deeper instinct bade him rise to his feet and carry on, keep going, one exhausted step after another.
More than once he had screamed to the sky until his throat was sore and he had no more tears to shed. He mourned the loss of all he had, until he saw no sense in doing so anymore. Why call the gods out on their malicious games when they were not listening?
His feet were blistered: he had lost his sandals a while ago. His eyes stung, his lips were cracked and dry, and his uncovered skin burnt and raw. He had finished his last drop of water a day ago, from the last bottle he could carry, wrenched from the hand of one of his dying… No. No, he would not think of that. He would keep his mind as empty as the desert around him, shifting with its incessant winds, and continue until death finally took him.
However, Fate was not done with him yet, and delivered unto him a gift through Providence's hand.
At first, he was sure it was a mirage, an illusion made by the jinns and their cruelty. But, as he moved forward, he noted that it could not be so. Those were trees, their green fronds clear, and that odd mass he could barely make out with his sun-blinded eyes seemed so like a building…
Finding an energy, a strange vigour yet untapped within him, he stumbled forward at a faster pace, his steps quickening until he was with shouting distance. His voice, however, broken and parched, would not come out as anything but a dying man's croak.
And then he could take it no further. His vision clouded, his body gave out. The last thing he saw before collapsing was a vision in white, and then Sadik Adnan, Sultan of Al Yildiz, knew no more.
Drifting between wakefulness and feverish dreams like a feather on the breeze, Sadik barely understood where he was. His body lay still, but his mind welled with colour and illusions. The only thing that broke blotched monotony was a vision in white: a young man, a modest white keffiyeh covering his head. Sadik wondered who he was, but never more than a few moments before slipping into painted darkness once more.
It remained like this for two days, until his dreams turned to nightmares: vivid flashes of blood and iron and vicious cries of agony. The hiss of arrows and the song of bowstrings, and the deafening rattle of chariot wheels.
His night terrors jerked him from slumber, sudden as being thrown in icy water, and he seized in an iron grip the wrist of the hand that caressed his forehead. He eyes were wide, unseeing, and his chest rose and fell fast and harsh.
"Hush," murmured a voice, soothing, and Sadik turned, sweat lathing his brow. His breathing calmed, and he finally saw.
His vision in white sat there in what must have been the dying light of evening, soothing his fever with cool hands and a moist cloth.
"Do not exhaust yourself, my friend," the man went on. His voice was quiet and strong, and it reminded Sadik of pure water. He finally released the man's wrist and allowed him to return to his ministrations, letting his own arm fall to the cushions beneath him.
"Where… Where am I?" Sadik's voice cracked like dried reeds, brittle with misuse. The man hummed gently and made himself more comfortable by Sadik's bedside.
"You are at the oasis of Al-Huriya," he said. He offered no further information, and continued humming gently, something that seemed to a have a melody. This allowed Sadik to take stock of his situation fully.
He was naked from the waist up, his burnt arms slathered in some cooling balm. His feet were wrapped in bandages and his lips tasted bitter. He smelt like a healer's backroom, and he was as thirsty as the desert he had crossed. However, over the pungent aroma of whatever medicine he was covered in, he could smell sweet tea, and his parched mouth begged for it.
He sat up slightly, his limbs weak and as shaky as a new-born lamb's, but before he could even open his mouth to ask, the man, his saviour, was there with a cup, not of tea, but of water. It was sweet and Sadik drank deeply, falling back when it was finished. He took advantage of the moment to now study this angel of salvation.
"Who are you?" he asked, reaching out a hand to shift the soft cloth of the keffiyeh and study the man's face.
The man looked up, and Sadik's already weak breath left him. The man's eyes were a beautiful golden colour, and they seemed to drive their way into Sadik's heart.
"My name is Gupta," the man said simply.
It was not until the next morning that Sadik finally rose and took stock of where he lay. The house was cool and dim, with tall windows and plain white walls draped with tapestries. Rich rugs were strewn across the floor, and he noted that he lay on one; covered with a blanket embroidered with lines in writing he did not understand.
Not far from where he lay was Gupta. In the cool, pinkish light of dawn, He saw the man was indeed as beautiful as he had seen the night before. As he admired how the light spread across deep tan skin and lean muscles, sculpted cheekbones and long legs. Gupta stirred. Sadik did not bother to avert his gaze and instead a smirk graced his lips. It was a smirk he had used countless times with the women of his harem and the boys of his court, and it never failed to entice anyone to his bed.
Gupta merely raised a thin eyebrow, almost derisively, rising to his feet and dressing leisurely. Sadik's face fell into a frown and he wondered whether his gift had been lost. He shrugged it off – for once – and rose himself up to his elbow.
"Do you not want to know my name?" he asked, tilting his head back.
"Your name is not needed in order for me to heal you," Gupta replied absently, "Sadik."
Sadik started and sat up fully, bewildered. Gupta left the room, his feet making almost no sound on the cool marble, leaving Sadik behind, and wondering.
It took one more day until Sadik took courage and got to his feet, limping through the house and taking everything in. Gupta was learned: there were shelves of bounds books and scrolls, in many different languages. He also seemed wealthy, if the tapestries and rugs were anything to go by. Sadik found his sword on a stand in the corner, cleaned and well tended to.
Leaving the room, he ventured outside. An awning of reeds shaded the door, and a stairwell led to the roof. Not far away was the sound of running water and the bleating of goats.
Sadik started as something brushed his legs, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he realised it was a black cat with a pierced ear and a rich, golden collar.
"You have risen, I see."
Sadik raised his eyes from the cat to see Gupta holding two buckets. He strolled over and offered one to Sadik, who merely stared at it, perplexed.
"While you are here, you can make yourself useful," Gupta explained with a sigh. Sadik took the bucket gingerly.
"I'm not a worker," he said, disgusted. Gupta rolled his eyes.
"This is not Al Yildiz, Sadik, and here you are no sultan," he said, his voice low but undeniably firm. Sadik's puzzlement turned to a scowl, but Gupta had already left.
Gupta returned to find Sadik lounging under the awning, the cat in his lap. His eyes narrowed in irritation and he cleared his throat.
Sadik opened an eye lazily and smirked. "Greetings, Gupta," he said with cheer. Gupta gave him a look that would have frozen flames, and Sadik hid his intimidation behind his carefree look. He did not know why, but a voice within him told him it would be best not to pick a fight with the mysterious guardian of the oasis. As was his wont, he ignored that wise voice.
"As long as you are here, under my care," Gupta said, slowly, "you shall do as I say."
"Then I shall leave tomorrow," Sadik said simply, beaming. Gupta snorted.
"Do not hope that you shall cross the desert in the state you are in," he said. "You should also do well to learn some humility."
It was now Sadik's turn to snort. "Humility is for peasants," he said disdainfully. He made himself comfortable against the wall of Gupta's house, his arms crossed behind his head.
"Then tonight you shall go hungry," Gupta stated, quite matter-of-factly. Sadik scoffed, and Gupta left him there.
Sadik had not truly believed Gupta would hold true to his word. He was used to being waited on hand and foot. He had servants to scurry around after him and women who threw themselves at his feet if he so much as expressed a vague desire for them. He also had never really gone hungry before.
So there he was, a hand clutched to his grumbling abdomen, his mouth watering at the delicious smell of meat and spices, and his pride about to take its first dent in the whole of his life.
He stood, took a deep breath, and tossed the curtain aside as ostentatiously as he could. Gupta sat at the low table, his legs crossed. An eyebrow rose at Sadik's entrance.
"I take it you are hungry?" he asked mildly. Everything about Gupta was so mild, yet Sadik could sense some strange power beneath the façade.
Sadik opened his mouth to deny it, when his stomach rumbled – again. Very loudly. He sighed.
"Yes, I am," he admitted.
"Clever man," Gupta commended, offering him a plate of meat and bread, which to Sadik seemed like some glorious gift. He offered an ashamed, yet grateful smile and sat down next to the other man.
"I… I am a horrible guest, am I not?" Sadik murmured guiltily, scooping the meat from his plate with a piece of torn bread. "First I take away your time with my sickness, and then I do not repay you with my help. The gods shall disfavour me."
Gupta shook his head. "We all can mend what we have done, Sadik. While you are here, you shall learn to be grateful for what is good and simple in this world," he said mysteriously, leaving Sadik to mull over his words.
From the next day onward, Sadik did try to help Gupta in the work the man did. He learnt to tend to the goats and Gupta's camel, and to do plenty of things he would never have learnt otherwise. He helped Gupta gather palm fronds and dry the camel dung he used to fuel his fire. Strangely, this made him feel more pleased with himself than ever before. He voiced this to Gupta one night before they slept, and Gupta replied that it was good.
Also, the feelings for Gupta began to transform from simple gratitude and abstract attraction.
Gupta was a quiet, simple man, not given to fighting or quarrels. If he could make peace through words, Sadik had no doubt he would. And it was so new and different to all the people in his court: viziers and counsellors who pushed for new lands to bring yet more riches to his already bloated empire, governors who demanded that rebellions be quashed and punishments laid out. Sadik had followed their words blindly, as his father and his father's father before him had done, and now Sadik began to see how foolish he had been.
Not that Gupta was without weapons, of course: his tongue, usually calming and smooth, could lash out with hidden insults and double-edges compliments, often handed out when Sadik was being his usual, pig-headed self. It was not often someone had the bravery to call him out on his behaviour, and this was refreshing. Simple did not mean foolish, either. Gupta was well-learned and knew much more than even the most erudite man of letters Sadik had met.
Slowly, his thankfulness turned to admiration, and admiration for Gupta in turn began to change into something deeper and less dark than lust. Yes, Sadik still wanted him. Gupta was beautiful by any standards, but he was also wild and untameable, like the best of horses, and finally even Sadik, who could have had anyone he laid eyes on, conceded that he would only be able to look and never touch. And, he did not know why, but this hurt him, at the level of his heart, and it was a pain unlike any wound he'd ever had before.
Gupta also had an air of mystery around him. Sadik had read and heard a great many tales of the dangerous yet beguiling peri who lived in the desert. And if one stopped to talk to them, all was lost. She would entangle you in her arms and you would die of thirst as she drained you of your essence. Gupta's very presence seemed to emit something altogether otherworldly, and yes, dangerous, but also calm and tranquil. He reminded Sadik of water.
And so it came to be that three weeks after his fateful arrival at Al-Huriya, he had not thought yet of returning home. Indeed, he had not thought of Al Yildiz at all. He did not feel guilty in this sense, for it did not enter his head even once. However, it was brought back sharply by the sudden coming of a strange boy.
Sadik had been tending the roof awning, mending it from the harsh winds that had passed through for the previous two days, when he noticed a cloud of dust in the distance, and a tiny figure heading towards the oasis. Shielding his eyes from the fierce glare of the sun, he frowned, watching.
In the cloud in the distance, he fancied to make out horses, and as the figure came closer, he saw it was a boy, running as if the very dogs of hell were at his heels. His hands were tied in front of him.
Leaping down from the awning, Sadik descended the steps from the roof and called Gupta to his side, enquiring about the people who chased the boy.
"They are slavers," Gupta replied. "They travel through the desert to take slaves to and from the great cities in the south. If they are giving chase to the boy, he is either valuable or must be punished."
It took the boy another few minutes to reach the oasis, where he collapsed at Gupta and Sadik's feet, gasping for air. His clothes, in the style of Gata, that country of mountains and islands. His hair, matted with sweat and dirt, was curly and long, and his eyes deep green. Immediately Gupta knelt and untied him, taking the boy into his arms and soothing him with gentle caresses to his back. Sadik took a pole from the goats' hut and placed himself in front of Gupta and the boy, his chin raised defiantly at the horsemen drew closer.
The leader, on a black stallion much too expensive to be used for crossing the desert, halted his horse before them, glowering down on the three.
Before he could utter any demand, Sadik spoke.
"Leave this place, or you shall regret it," he warned, readying his pole. Gupta kept the boy close, and Sadik could feel his golden eyes on his back. The slavers laughed, and the leader dismounted, unsheathing a scimitar and pointing it at Sadik.
It was the last thing the head slaver did. With a graceful, continuous movement, Sadik brought his improvised staff around himself and slammed it into the man's side. The grip on the scimitar weakened, and Sadik took advantage of the moment to take the blade from the man. He put it to good use, stabbing him. The slaver fell to his knees, bleeding out on the sand.
The other slavers could not stand for this, and they all dismounted, unsheathing their unimpressive array of weapons. Sadik smirked, hearing the usual red hum of combat in his ears, and attacked, using both the pole and the scimitar. One man had his head cracked open; another's windpipe was severed. Sadik's mastery of fighting was undeniable.
Finally, one man was left. His companions' bodies were sprawled around him like lumps of abandoned clay. His scimitar slipped for his fingers, and he fell to his knees, raising his hands in surrender and begging for mercy in a dialect Sadik didn't recognise.
Sadik held his scimitar at the man's chest. "Do you want to live?" he demanded. The man nodded eagerly, tears running down his face.
"Then go," he said. "Tell your other colleagues there is a demon in this desert."
The man nodded again, and scrambled to his feet, dashing to his horse and riding off into the desert as if devils chased him.
Sadik cleaned the blade on one of the dead men's tunics and turned back to Gupta.
"Well, does the boy have a name?" he asked.
The bodies were disposed of by burying them in the sand, for not much else could be done.
And they still did not know the boy's name. He said nothing, but he ate like a camel after a journey. Even words spoken in his own tongue by Gupta did nothing to coax knowledge from him. He also seemed to despise Sadik on principle.
Gupta sat back, sighing. "He is impossible," he said. Sadik tried to ignore the smouldering glare the boy was throwing at him and turned to Gupta.
"So where were those slavers headed?" he asked matter-of-factly. Gupta levelled him a penetrating gaze.
"Most probably to Al Yildiz," he answered. Sadik sighed.
"It is to be expected," he mused. Gupta did not reply.
They eventually learnt what the boy's name was, when he was apparently sure they were not going to kill him or rape him. His name was Herakles, he was indeed from Gata, and apparently, his mother had sold him into slavery because she could not take care of him anymore. He seemed to become terribly attached to Gupta's mild ways, and especially to Gupta's cat.
And he truly hated Sadik, and all of Al Yildiz. This did not affect Sadik in the slightest, except that the boy played pranks. He would then take refuge behind Gupta whenever Sadik tried to exact revenge. Gupta's raised eyebrow would always make him feel ashamed to be quick-tempered, especially with a young boy.
Sadik wondered to himself whether they could be considered some sort of strange family. He did not voice this, but he could not help smiling when he saw Gupta help Herakles with something. It was strangely small and idyllic, and it was something Sadik had never had before.
It was evening, the desert was already cooling from its daily heat, and Sadik suddenly awoke. The room was flooded with silver light from the coin-like moon, and he felt a strange restlessness in his blood, dancing like fire in his veins. He turned, and saw Gupta was not there.
Careful not to wake Herakles, sprawled on his mat on the other side of the room, he slipped from his bed and out of the house, wondering where Gupta could be. All was quiet and still, and bathed in bright light. The stars were violent and brilliant in the dark sky.
Sadik had never wandered much. Too tired to do so, his little world had been the part of the oasis closest to Gupta's house. So, by light of the moon, he followed a trail that went between two cliffs, and emerged onto a pool. Gupta was there, in the water, humming a melody that sounded distant and ancient.
Sadik remained there, watching and listening, until Gupta turned.
"Is it not polite to warn of your presence?" he asked mildly, stepping from the water. Sadik swallowed, gazing at the water dripping from Gupta's smooth chest and ridged stomach. He did not seemed bothered by Sadik's intense look, nor by his own nakedness. His eyes burnt in the dark. Reaching a hand out, Sadik hummed an invitation, and Gupta took it. He pressed himself to Sadik, gazing upwards, enigmatic and enthralling eyes gazing into Sadik's.
"I see inside you, Sadik, and see that you want me," he murmured. "It has been many years since I have lain with someone…"
"Good, for I would not take kindly to a rival."
Sadik kissed him, deeply and thoroughly, spreading his hands down Gupta's back. His skin was indeed as silky as he had imagined, and his lips were as sweet as nectar. Gupta's hands spread over his shoulders, as if mapping their broadness. He appeared as erudite in the art of kissing as in any of his other fields of expertise.
How they ended up upon the ground, Gupta spread below him like a beautiful tapestry, Sadik did not know, but he was not going to deny himself or Gupta. He kissed over smooth skin, delighting in Gupta's moans and the flickering of strong muscles under taut flesh.
He did not expect Gupta to flip him over and gaze down upon him, golden eyes predatory as they kissed again. Gupta allowed his tongue to follow the pathway of Sadik's muscles, tasting him as if he was a banquet, his hands on Sadik's firm thighs. He was easily rid of the little clothing he was wearing, freeing his erection. Sadik purred, threading his fingers through Gupta's short locks as the other began licking and mouthing Sadik's hard shaft.
Sadik groaned, tilting his head back, when Gupta finally engulfed him in his mouth, humming around Sadik's thick member. Gupta's mouth was as persuasive and skilful as Sin herself, and Sadik soon found himself on the brink of pleasure he'd never felt before. He would never admit he actually whimpered when Gupta left him.
Gupta slithered up his body, kissing him again. "Patience, my love," he murmured against Sadik's lips, "you will have better soon."
And better he did get. Sadik was not in the mind to question where the sweet-scented oil came from, but as Gupta guided his slicked fingers to his entrance, Sadik could not have cared less.
Gupta was tight, maddeningly so, and Sadik could not help but wonder about how he would feel around his erection. He gently coaxed Gupta's muscles open with his fingers, wondering if three would suffice, for Sadik was of no small girth. He felt Gupta's fingers dig into his back, arms wrapped around his shoulders. The other's gasps and gentle moans were sweet music to Sadik's ears as he played Gupta like an instrument. His prized reactions only made Sadik want him more.
"Enough, Sadik…" Gupta breathed, lips ghosting against the other's ear. "Take me."
Sadik thanked any god he could think of for this moment, as Gupta sank down onto him, mouth open in a silent moan and face full of ecstasy and a flicker of pain that soon disappeared.
"Move…" Gupta ordered, opening his eyes and allowing the gold to burn into Sadik's. Sadik thrust up, groaning. Gupta seemed to be made of pure pleasure, delicious, intoxicating heat around him. He pressed his lips to Gupta's neck as they moved together, murmuring the other's name as if it were the holiest of prayers.
The scent of Gupta's skin, its taste – heady spice – the feel of it against his own, their hard bodies rocking one into the other, were the sweetest of torments. Sadik loved the arch of Gupta's back as he drove deeper, the aborted sighs and moans and the convulsive tightness. He let his hands reach all over Gupta's body, his fingertips acutely tuned to wherever made Gupta thrash. He felt all over, groping like a blind man, over the round globes of his buttocks, the angles of his hips, the solid sinew of his thighs, the thick hardness of his member.
Their bodies continued their dance, flowing against each other in unison, like waves of the sea crashing against the rocks of the shore. The heat was as unbearable as the sun, the pleasure overwhelming.
"S-Sadik…" he heard Gupta hiss. With a low moan he released, panting against Sadik's neck.
It did not take long for Sadik to follow Gupta. With Gupta practically begging him to come in his ear, Sadik could not help but climax deep inside his lover, his release sweetened even more by Gupta's tired kiss.
They remained, conjoined, for a few moments, recovering themselves from a breathtaking culmination.
"Oh gods… I love you," Sadik murmured against Gupta's shoulder, kissing his skin gently. Gupta smiled and hummed, scratching the base of Sadik's neck softly.
The morning found them still at the pool, tangled in each other's embrace. Sadik awoke, pleasantly languid in the gathering heat of the early day, and glanced down to the man sleeping against his chest. He ran a hand down Gupta's back, cupping his behind. Gupta opened an eye.
"I was waiting for you to do such a thing," he said, his voice sleep-heavy and cracked. Sadik felt a thrill he had never felt before in knowing it was because he had made Gupta sing like a songbird the previous night.
"Do you not like my touch? What changes does the morning bring?" he asked. Gupta laughed softly, raising himself and stretching like a cat.
"Nothing," he said, running a hand down Sadik's chest and abdomen and stopping short of the thick curls at the base of his shaft. Sadik raised an eyebrow.
"I just expected it of you, 'tis all," Gupta continued, lowering himself to kiss the other, almost hungrily. "I am raw all over. Your beard is like sharkskin."
Sadik chuckled and sat up. He had certainly never felt like this with any other lover. This sensation of contentment and satisfaction, he felt full to the brim with it, like a warm wind around his heart. He watched Gupta wash himself in the pool and dress, regretting the white cloth covering that warm brown skin.
"Dress, beloved," Gupta ordered. "We still have work to do."
Sadik raised himself to his feet with a sigh and followed Gupta's example. As soon as they returned to the house, Herakles threw himself out of the house and against Gupta's legs.
"Where were you?" he demanded, gazing up with an accusatory pout. Gupta smiled, caressing the boy's head.
"We needed our own time, Herakles," Gupta murmured, cajoling the boy to let him go and allow him to go about his daily routine.
It seemed everything and nothing had changed at once. Sadik revelled in being able to simply take Gupta in his arms and kiss him. To hear Gupta's laugh and feel him kiss back in response. Of course, Herakles did not approve. The boy seemed to take it upon himself to separate them whenever he could. This irritated Sadik to no end, but Gupta seemed to find it amusing.
To curl up at night with his lover at his side was the most sublime of feelings. Gupta's quiet, deep breathing in the darkness, the weight of his body at his side… It was worth having Herakles try to snuggle up between them. It was like nothing he had ever experienced. Oh, he had a harem, a large one at that, and had taken plenty of lovers, but this new, mysterious force he shared with Gupta… It made his heart sing and his lips quick to laughter. It was as if the world was painted with newfound joy, amusement and wonder, and it was Gupta who was the centre of things, his sun, the axis around which he spun.
He also became a new initiate into the pleasures of receiving. It was something he had never conceived before. He was the king, the one who gave the orders, so allowing one of the boys he indulged with to take him as opposed to the norm was a notion he had never dreamt of entertaining. But with Gupta… he did not mind surrendering what little power he had, and he realised it was not demeaning or humiliating to accept the other inside him. The pleasure was deep and beautiful, and never had he felt so happy as like now.
One morning Sadik awoke to find Gupta dressed, it seemed, for a journey.
"Where are you going?" he asked, winding his arms around Gupta's waist and kissing his neck. Gupta sighed.
"I need to take a trip to the town. I fear we are running out of certain things…"
Sadik pulled away, frowning. "A town?" he asked.
He did not miss the nervous flicker in Gupta's eyes, not the way the other did not quite look at him. Sadik was a suspicious man at heart, he knew people were wilier than they ever would admit, but he had not expected this of Gupta. Gupta, who spoke the truth.
"Why did you not tell me there was a town?" he asked, trying to keep his voice even, though it was deep with mistrust and, he would admit, a little hurt.
Gupta shook his head, and that vulnerability was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. "You did not ask," he replied. He levelled Sadik with a stare that dared a challenge, and Sadik let it go.
"Wait for a moment," he demanded, returning to the other room to where Herakles was just waking from his deep child's slumber. He gazed at Sadik with suspicion.
"Why are you dressing like that?" he asked, standing and heading over to him. Sadik was pulling on most of the few clothes he owned, as if he were to travel.
"Never you mind," he answered brusquely, heading to where Gupta was waiting.
"So, you have decided to come with me?"
Sadik nodded. "Unless you wish to keep me as a prisoner," he stated. His voice carried a chill within it.
Herakles tottered out, still tired, and stared from Gupta to Sadik, his expression one of terror. "You're leaving me!" he cried, dashing forward to hug Gupta as tightly as he could. Gupta smiled, caressing the boy's hair.
"Do not worry, Herakles, we will return," he murmured. Herakles sniffled and stepped back, watching them leave with tears in his eyes.
"You should get another camel," Sadik mused. It was the first time he had spoken since they had set out. Gupta half-turned to look at the man behind him and raised his eyebrows.
"Are you planning on staying despite the fact I, ah, 'kept you as a prisoner'?" The sarcasm in Gupta's voice was almost painful. Sadik snorted.
He should have known the warning tone would not sit well with the other.
"Do not talk to me as if I were some child!" he snapped. "You wished to stay! I did nothing to keep you at my oasis, you were free to leave whenever you desired!"
Sadik cringed. He had never heard Gupta speak in such a way, with such a voice, before. To have it directed at himself was painful, to say the least.
"Forgive me, Gupta, I…"
Gupta shook his head stiffly. "Hush. I do not wish to hear your apologies."
Sadik said no more, directing his moody silence to the empty and vast desert around them. He was not looking forward to an entire day of travel like this.
They arrived at the town the next morning. It was everything a small desert community built around an oasis always was: a main thoroughfare through the unending dunes, it held as many merchants as there were wares and was rife with bustling human life. Many of the inhabitants seemed to know Gupta well. Plenty bowed to him reverentially, some women asking him to bless their new babies. Sadik was practically ignored.
"You are famous, hm?" he said, forgetting their quarrel from earlier in the light of his new discovery. It seemed Gupta was ready to lay down his sword also, and he smiled at Sadik.
"They've known me for many years," he stated. "I am seen as a hermit or a holy man, when I am nothing of the sort. I am happy to indulge them, for they are generous in exchange for what little I have."
Sadik allowed Gupta to go about his duties with the townspeople, wandering among the stalls and admiring the wares. A few merchants accosted him, no doubt strangers to the town, and once a pickpocket try to lighten him of the knife at his belt, the sword at his back obviously not enough of a deterrent. The young man went away with broken fingers and a bruised ego.
He met with Gupta at the fountain in the town square, where a few children were playing in the cool water, their mothers looking on. Gupta handed him bread and cheese, which Sadik took gratefully.
"Am I forgiven, beloved?" he asked. Gupta eyed him, his gaze once again unfathomable, and nodded.
"For now. Until you no doubt make another disaster."
Sadik scowled to himself, but immediately changed his expression when Gupta looked back at him.
"How long will we be staying?" he asked.
"A few days," Gupta replied. "I cannot stay from Al-Huriya too long…"
They spent the rest of the day searching for a place to stay. It was a small room with two beds in a wayfarers' house, simple but clean and cool. Sadik was stretching, wondering if it was still too soon after their quarrel to kiss Gupta, when a man burst in. His expression was stricken with worry.
"Please! Please, ma'laj! My daughter is ill!"
Gupta quickly got to his feet and rushed after the man. Sadik followed also, albeit unsure of his use in this matter. The man led them to a small, modest house, and to a bedroom. Two women were crying loudly in a corner. Another knelt by the bed, dampening the forehead of a young girl. Beneath the flush of bitter fever, her cheeks were pale as paper. Gupta came closer and the women fell into a reverential silence, bowing their heads like pigeons.
The woman by the bed seemed reluctant to move, until her husband dragged her gently away and allowed Gupta to work in peace.
Sadik stood by the door, watching the seen with narrowed eyes. He would not put it past Gupta to be a physician, even though the mysterious man had not mentioned it.
What he saw, however, was not part of a physician's trade.
Gupta took the bowl of clear water and tested it with the tip of his finger. He nodded in satisfaction before placing the girl's hand in it. She did not stir, her breathing shallow and laboured. Gupta kept a hold of her hand, and began to sing. A low, hushed whisper of words that soon grew and blossomed into a sweet melody in a tongue Sadik had never heard before. It seemed to flow around them, creating its own music of flutes and wind and bells. The water in the bowl glowed the blue of the sky, shedding cold light on Gupta's features. The glow swept up the girl's arm, spreading all through her body, painting it with light. Gupta never seemed to pause in his song, even for breath.
Sadik could only stare in amazement and wonder at the sight of his lover weaving magic to heal a sick girl. He had had his suspicions of Gupta's supernatural nature for some time, but for him to be… It did not seem possible.
Then, as soon as the ritual had begun, it ended. Gupta fell silent, the glow vanished, and the room seemed pitch dark and horribly empty.
The girl in the bed broke the awed silence, stirring and calling for her mother. The woman rushed to her side as soon as Gupta had stepped out of the way, and embraced her daughter, weeping into her hair. The man embraced Gupta, gushing his thanks, bowing and kissing his hands. Gupta shook his head with a smile and bid them farewell after ordering them to keep her on water of the Holy Well for a week.
Sadik could not speak as they made their way back to the inn. He was stunned. Why had Gupta hidden this from him? Did he not trust him? Did he not believe in him?
"Are you afraid of me, Sadik?" Gupta's mild voiced forced its way through his murky thoughts, a note of worry in it. Sadik looked at him, his expression one of shock, before shaking his head.
"I… I merely wonder why you did not tell me," he said, finding his voice once more. Gupta looked ashamed of himself.
"I thought that you would fear me and scorn me," he murmured. Sadik scoffed.
"I could never do so, Gupta," he said firmly, stopping and pulling the other man towards him. Gupta raised his hands and pressed them to Sadik's chest, resting his head on the other's collarbone.
"I know, I was foolish."
"We have much to talk about. Explanations are needed."
Gupta smiled as he looked up. "I owe them to you."
Sadik was not by nature a patient man. Of course, he had learnt how to be one in the time he had spent with Gupta, but, all the same, he desired to finally understand Gupta, to know him fully.
Gupta, however, was hesitant. As they sat facing each other on their separate beds, Sadik could tell he was unsure and nervous. The way he twisted his fingers and kept blowing slow, deep breaths. In the end, Sadik could take it no longer.
Leaning forward, he stilled Gupta's hands with his own and brought them to his lips to kiss them.
"If you do not wish for me to know, I shall understand," he murmured. He hoped that would not be the case. Gupta shook his head.
"No, I must tell you. Dishonesty and secrets have no place between lovers."
He took another deep breath, steadying himself, and gazed away into a distance Sadik could not see.
"My mother was a desert jinn. She was the guardian of the oasis of Al-Huriya, and she had been since before the memory of mortals. My father was a traveller, a scholar, and he had become lost in the desert, nearly dead. He happened upon the oasis, much like you did," he smiled warmly at Sadik before continuing, "and they fell in love. I was born not long after.
"I had much the same powers as my mother: control over water, healing, understanding of animals, although my intelligence came from my father."
"How long ago was this?" Sadik asked. Gupta closed his eyes as if in thought.
"When Shaheen was a young and vibrant nation, that was just spreading the roots of its empire," he replied. Sadik inhaled. That was thousands of years ago.
"You do not look so old," Sadik said, caressing his lover's smooth cheek.
"I am more jinn than human," he murmured. "The years passed, I grew, and my parents were happy, though my father aged where my mother did not.
"But happiness is, as always, a fleeting creature, and soon people came to ruin our idyll. They were soldiers, scouting for enemies, and they happened upon the oasis, for Al-Huriya can only be found either by those who desire it more than anything or those who find it by chance. They remained, for hospitality is important to the jinn, until one began to lust after my mother, and the others began to go mad from the isolation."
Gupta lowered his head, is voice quiet and now carrying a gentle quake within it.
"They killed my father, and they would have killed me also, had my mother not intervened. Blinded with rage, she killed them, and a jinn may never take the life of a human. She disappeared, and I was left alone."
Sadik remained silent for a long moment, taking in all Gupta had revealed.
"Were… Were there others before me?" he asked. Gupta raised his head almost sharply, before sighing.
"There used to be, too many years ago to remember. People who missed the trades routes, fugitives, exiles… They never lasted long. They hated Al-Huriya, and they despised me." He gave Sadik a long, pointed look. "Many times have I loved, Sadik, and yet you are the only one to answer that love."
He pressed his hands to Sadik's rough cheeks, and the man of Al Yildiz leant forward and kissed him, trying to pour every drop of the love he felt into the other.
"How anyone could not love you is a mystery to me," he said, pulling Gupta against him and embracing him. Gupta smiled against his shoulder and Sadik laid them down, curled around one another.
"You have not told me your story yet," Gupta whispered. Sadik chuckled, his laughter rumbling through their bodies.
"I have no interesting story, I am afraid," he answered. Gupta scoffed.
"Lovers' stories are always interesting," he muttered, drifting to sleep.
The next morning, they headed to the market again. It appeared Gupta needed a few more supplies before they headed home to the oasis once more. It was strange, Sadik mused, that he considered the oasis home. Although, when he looked to Gupta, he found himself thinking that any place where the jinn was to be found, be it the sea or the stars, was home.
And knowing Gupta's true nature had changed nothing. On the contrary it merely seemed to reinforce Sadik's loyalty and affection. He had an inkling that it was not a story Gupta had ever told, and he felt humbled and elated that he had been the one it had been revealed to. It made his heart sing.
They had wandered to the animal market, where goats, sheep, cattle and camels stank and made infernal noises in the sun. Gupta studied a few animals, until Sadik inquired why.
"We may need another," he said absently. "We cannot be on one."
It was then that Sadik spotted two merchants from his own land. They were talking to some locals, and Sadik left Gupta to his haggling to listen. He was hungry for tidings from Al Yildiz. How had the place fared without its sultan?
"What news from Al Yildiz, friends?" he asked, greeting them with a bow of his head and a hand to his chest. The merchants mirrored his movements, and one shrugged.
"The place is a shambles," he said. "Ever since the army and the sultan were lost, it is a hell. Aslan is full of backstabbers. The ministers are fighting amongst themselves, quarrelling over the throne. Half of the sultan's relatives have been murdered, and his younger brother Emin has had to go into hiding."
"If it continues to be like this, the empire will crumble," the other added. "There are already revolts in the outlying provinces, and the Bears are stirring on the northern borders. Trade is becoming impossible. I am down to my last two camels."
He waved in the direction of two rough-looking beasts, and they both exchanged dejected, heavy looks. Sadik pressed a hand to his mouth in shock. What had happened to his homeland? His empire? Had his presence really been that important? More so he felt anger that his brother was a fugitive in his own kingdom. How dare they? Those jackals, trying to steal his own throne from underneath him!
"Thank you, friends," he said sincerely. "I can only pray that times will become better for you once again."
And with that he went to find Gupta, his mind heavy with thought.
He found the jinn standing next to a young-looking, supple creature, happily caressing its neck. The camel seemed in ecstasy, and it rumbled contentedly.
"you are back," Gupta said. "this shall be my steed from now on."
Sadik gave him a quick smile, but his mind was elsewhere. How could he have been so selfish? Oh, his time with Gupta had been the most beautiful he had ever spent, but in exchange he had left his country to rot. He had put himself before his citizens, no matter who they were. He was disgusted with himself.
He followed Gupta back to their room as if in a trance, and Gupta, ever observant, noticed his distance.
"Beloved, tell me your thoughts," he urged. Sadik glanced up. Oh, when he looked in those eyes, how he was smitten again! Could he truly leave this beautiful being, the other half of his soul, and return to the cutthroat way of politics and war? Leave his idyll, leave what had become his family and his only world?
"Gupta, I love you more than my own life," he said. "Do not begrudge me any decisions I might make."
Gupta froze, and a spark of fear blossomed in his golden eyes.
"You are leaving."
It was not a question, it was a statement. He knew he could not keep Sadik forever. Time or duty would take him once more, but Gupta had hoped…
He shook his head.
"I understand," he said. It was as if those simple words were a terrible, vicious sacrifice to make. "Al Yildiz is your kingdom, and every kingdom needs a king."
He took in a shuddering sigh.
"Come with me," Sadik said suddenly. Gupta stared. Sadik placed his hands on the other's shoulders and nodded.
"Come with me to Aslan," he urged. "Come with me, live with me, be my consort."
Gupta laughed bitterly, shaking his head.
"Beloved, I cannot leave Al-Huriya. I would die within a moon from leaving."
Sadik's hands fell, and he set to pacing, running his hands through his hair and punching his palm in frustration.
"I cannot bear to leave you," he said. He felt so impotent, so weak in the face of such a horrible decision. It was as if his entire life were hanging by a thread. He stood at a crossroads, and the terminus of each pathway was shrouded in unhappy mist.
"But you must," Gupta said.
Sadik's head shot up, and he stared at his lover in shock. Gupta nodded, answering Sadik's unspoken question.
"You must leave, for your homeland needs you."
He stood and crossed the room, embracing him.
"It is for a greater good, beloved," he murmured, burying himself in Sadik's broad chest.
Sadik could not even find the strength to raise his arms and embrace his lover. Why could he not have everything he wanted.
"It is best you leave from here," Gupta went on. "From Al-Huriya would be too difficult."
Sadik nodded mutely. He was dreading the morning.
They parted at the city gate with not a word spoken, merely a long-held gaze full of pain. Both tried to tell each other that this parting was for the best. Neither could bring themselves to believe their lies.
Herakles ran to greet him when he appeared, dismounting off his disgruntled mount with a groan. The boy stopped in his tracks, staring.
"Where is the bastard from Al Yildiz?" he asked suspiciously. Gupta offered him a weak, broken smile and caressed his head.
"Sadik had returned to his country," he explained. "He needed to, for they need him there, more than we do here."
Herakles placed his hands on his hips, grinning.
"That is excellent news! I hate him!"
Gupta chuckled and drew the boy into an embrace. "I know, Herakles. Come, help me with the supplies."
That night, Gupta wept for the first time in centuries, for in the first time in weeks, he slept in his bed without the warm comfort of Sadik beside him.
The return home took less time than expected. Sadik merely followed the caravan of merchants heading north in the general direction of his homeland. And as soon as he entered it, he did see the beginnings of devastation across it. The road to Aslan was filled with thugs and bandits, and although Sadik knew more than well how to take care of himself, he risked more than once.
Aslan itself had become a strange, twisted version of itself. From a city of splendour and knowledge, where the power of the Eastern World sat, it had degenerated quickly after his disappearance. For once, Sadik felt guilty about what he had let his subjects go through, as he studied them, leading his camel to the gates of his home.
The palace, however, was as strongly guarded as ever. He was stopped immediately. This irked him, even though he knew all within believed him dead.
"Halt! Turn back, peasant!"
Sadik scowled, unsheathing his sword.
"Bite your tongue, dog, and let me pass! Dare you guard the palace from its sultan!"
The first guard aimed his spear, but the other, a veteran Sadik did recognise, fell to the ground in a low bow, pulling the other down with him.
"Forgive him, my liege! He is but a new recruit!"
Sadik resheathed his sword, nodding.
"He is forgiven. May my gates be opened, your ruler has returned."
And opened they were. He passed within, his camel rumbling in dissatisfaction, and he beckoned another guard.
"Send word to Kassim, the Grand Vizier. Tell him his sovereign is back, and that he wishes to right the wrongs he had heard of."
The guard looked relieved for a moment, before rushing off into the palace to find Kassim. Soon enough he returned, a harassed-looking Grand Vizier at his heels.
"Who is this charlatan you have let within –"
He stopped dead in seeing Sadik, and bowed low, reverentially. Sadik almost fancied he could see the wheels turning within his head as he thought quickly.
"Your Majesty, we all thought you were lost to us! You don such humble attire, and you look weary! Come, let you be taken care of!"
His baths were as spacious and ornate as ever, the tub set deep in the floor made of polished marble and tile inlaid with a gold as beautiful a spectacle as the day it had been built, and the perfumed water was welcome to alleviate the weariness of travel, but… It lacked the purity and sweet memories of the pool at the oasis. His handmaidens, forever trying to catch his eye, meant nothing anymore. Even the water seemed dirtier. He sighed, washing himself thoroughly and on his own (much to his handmaidens' shock), and left the baths with a heavy heart.
Even dressing seemed different. Rich, embroidered silk from the Orient that came in every colour the gods could imagine could not match the smooth, plain linen he had dressed in for the previous weeks. He almost felt impure in wearing it, as if he would no longer be worthy of Gupta's affections if he wore such things.
And entering the throne room, where his ministers awaited him, did not hold the same enjoyment as it did before. When once he would appear, head held high and arrogance in his step, he now strode in like a man changed. Still strong and inflexible, but also wiser. The ministers, shrewd observers as ever, noticed this and exchanged worried looks. He could smell their discomfort at his return, thick on the air. Once he would have enjoyed the backstabbing and found the intrigue amusing, now he despised it.
Sadik was home, but it did not feel like it.
The news of the sultan's return spread through the palace, and then through Aslan, like wildfire. Soon, Sadik's name was on every tongue. All wished to know where he had come from, where he had been, and hoped things would right themselves again. And Sadik set to do so. He threw himself into running the kingdom, delegating no tasks to ministers except those few he knew he could trust (and my, were they not many), and indeed righting the wrongs. He went personally to borders to parlay with rebels, something that they did not expect, and worked treaties with fearful neighbours. His incessant work during daylight hours helped him keep his mind from Gupta.
But at night… At night nothing could keep his thoughts from flying across the desert to be at Al-Huriya with his beloved. Oh, how he longed for his touch and his scent and his lips… This absence, this lack of Gupta, tore his heart from his chest every time he dared to think of him. His harem was blatantly ignored.
It was then, a month after his return, that people began to speak of how the country was not only returning to its former glory, but seemed rising to greater heights than ever before. The people of Al Yildiz prospered once more.
Sadik had taken to spending what little time he had in contemplation in his gardens. Before, he would have been holding banquets and hunting, but now… he merely wished to think.
And much thinking he did. He would sit beneath a fig tree, musing on things he needed to do, laws he needed to amend, and diplomats he needed to send. He was tired, but he would not let that stop him in any way.
It was during one of his meditative strolls that he happened upon a woman of his harem. She was sitting by one of the fountains, kicking her feet in the water like a child and singing a sorrowful song. He knew her well. She came from the very north-western edge of his lands, where men drove huge-horned cattle across wide green plains and there was a lake as wide as a sea. Some called her a witch. Sadik seemed to recall her name was Erzsébet.
He watched her a moment longer, before clearing his throat. She whipped around, her long, nut-brown tresses following her movement like silk, and glared.
"What do you contemplate?" he asked, truly curious.
"It is none of your business!" she snapped. He remembered her insolence, also. Sadik merely chuckled, raising his hands in surrender.
"I meant no disrespect," he said easily, sitting on the bench near the fountain and watching her. "Can we not talk civilly?"
She sneered. "You know nothing of respect!"
Sadik sighed. "And yet, I am not the one insulting someone else," he replied easily. Erzsébet turned a vicious shade of red and harrumphed, turning back to the fountain.
"Alas, I had hoped to find someone to speak to who does not think I have gone mad," he went on, lounging in the shade of the fig tree. Erzsébet turned again, fixing him with a suspicious stare.
"I have heard of your supposed change of heart – word travels fast in the harem – but I do not believe it," she hissed. "You are a tyrant and a kidnapper, and nothing could change that!"
Sadik hummed reasonably. "You are justified in hating me. I took you from your lands and your family, whisking you away here to be locked up in my harem as my concubine…"
Erzsébet just stared, her suspicion turning to incredulity. "You speak like a diplomat, not a dictator," she mused, swinging her legs over the rim of the fountain and turning to face him fully. He lay on the stone bench with an arm over his face and one thrown over his stomach, in seemingly total relaxation. Yet she could see, with her trained warrior's eye, the tension of great burden in his muscles. This man had not been at peace for a long time.
"You stole me from my husband," she added, almost carelessly. Sadik looked at her.
"I can only beg forgiveness. Being taken from one's loved ones is a horrific fate."
She sighed. "We had a peculiar relationship." She immediately clapped her hands over her mouth, as if she had said something terrible. Sadik raised an eyebrow, but probed no further, despite his curiosity being peaked.
"You are free to have your secrets, Erzsébet of the Magyar tribe," he said easily. She was about to snap back at him when a minister came rushing through the garden.
"My liege, you must come quickly! There are delegates from Adler here…"
With a long-suffering sigh, Sadik roused himself from his bench and headed after his minister. Before he rounded the hedge, however, he turned back and smiled.
"I hope that we may speak again, Erzsébet, for your conversation was enlightening!"
Erzsébet could not figure out whether he spoke in earnest or in jest, but the next day, she still found herself waiting by the fountain, almost hopefully.
And speak again they did. It appeared the sultan's change of heart was true, although Erzsébet would not have been willing to bet money on it, being a suspicious woman by nature and nurture. Soon she was confident enough to sit near him when they conversed, even sharing tales of her homeland. They learnt more of each other with each word spoken, and eventually she felt confident enough to ask the sultan where he had been in the months he had been missing. He gave her a long hard look, as if judging her worthy, before turning back to the fountain and gazing into it, as if all the answers were in its clear blue waters.
"I spent time at an oasis," he said. "With a jinn."
Erzsébet raised a sceptical eyebrow. She did not believe in fairy tales and fables. She apparently had forgotten when she would go dancing with the Szépasszony as a child.
"A jinn? Is that Al Yildiz for a hallucination?"
Sadik gave her a withering look. "If you did not want to hear the tale, why ask?"
Erzsébet rolled her eyes and waved a hand. "No, no, do continue. I am truly curious. How could you tell he was a jinn?"
"I saw him heal a girl in a town. A blue glow came from the water he touched as he chanted. And he was just…" He tried to think of words that could describe Gupta without being too telling, but he kept failing miserably. "…beautiful." His voice was no higher than the barest whisper. Erzsébet suddenly became much more interested in the tale.
"Beautiful?" she prompted, licking her lips. Sadik nodded, apparently lost in his own recollections, like an old man reminiscing.
"Indeed… His eyes were the colour of the desert sand at sunset, his voice like a slow, sweet music, like a river…"
Erzsébet dared to ask the question that had sprung to her mind. "Did you… Did you love him?"
Sadik looked at her. "If this is merely a ruse to make me the laughing stock of the harem, then I do not care. For I still love him. And I believe I always will."
He leant back against the fig tree, playing with a leaf absently. "He is my sun and my moon, my heaven and my earth. He is my sin and saviour. Do you understand such a feeling?"
Erzsébet let out a breath she did not know she had been holding at Sadik's confession. It was then she knew he truly had changed, had become a better man.
"No," she admitted. "I have never felt such a love. A deep affection, yes, and pleasure also, but never… What you feel, Sire."
Sadik smiled vaguely. "I hope one day that you will, and that you are never separated from the one you love."
Erzsébet nodded, dipping her head to surreptitiously wipe her tears away. "Why," she began to ask once she had regained her composure, through Sadik's respectful silence. "Why did you leave him?"
Sadik leaned forward, resting on his knees with a sigh. "Because my loyalty must come first and foremost to my people. I am their ruler, their leader, their protector. It is my duty to defend them, and guide them."
Erzsébet scowled. "Foolishness! You should have brought him with you, if that is the case!"
Sadik shook his head with a rueful smile. "You think I did not try? You think I did not ask? He cannot leave his oasis, he belongs to it, as his mother before him. Gupta cannot leave Al-Huriya."
Erzsébet nodded. "I see… Maybe you should return to him. Does he love you too?"
Sadik nodded. "Yes, or so I would hope to believe."
She lapsed into thought for a brief moment, before giggling quietly. "I have always believed there is nought purer and more beautiful than the love two men can have for each other."
Sadik stared at her, unsure as to what to make of her words. He had never encountered a woman who spoke such things. It was equal parts shocking and amusing.
"Your sincerity could get you killed in some places," he mused. She scoffed.
"I need not worry, as I have only ever told you."
Sadik smiled at the trust she had put in him, and finally reached a decision on something he had been pondering for many days now.
"Sayidah Erzsébet, the Sultan wishes to see you."
Erzsébet looked up from her reading, a frown marring her features. Some of the other harem girls giggled, hiding their mirth behind bejewelled hands and gilt fans.
"Try not to incur his wrath again, this time!" jeered one, but Erzsébet merely ignored their laughter and headed to where the eunuch guard stood waiting for her.
As he accompanied her along the cool marble corridors, she could not help but feel betrayed by him. He had thought this confidence had meant he could finally take her! She felt tears spring to the corners of her eyes, but instead of turning and running, she merely followed like a meek little lamb. She did not raise her head until they stopped, and to her surprise they were not at the Sultan's bedchambers, but at his study.
He stood over a map with a few of his generals and his brother, come out of hiding, studying the lay of a land to the east. He looked up and smiled when she entered.
"Welcome, Erzsébet," he said, dismissing his generals and Emin with a wave of his hand. Emin gazed curiously back, but did not question.
"Why did you send for me?" she asked. He took a deep breath and offered her another smile.
"I have decided… to let you go. You may return to your husband in Schwarzadler."
She went rigid, staring at him as if she could not truly see him. Shaking, she pressed a hand to her mouth.
"Y-you are truly freeing me?" she asked, her voice trembling. Sadik nodded. With a sob she lurched forward and embraced him.
There would have been a time, not as long ago as it seemed, that Sadik would have taken advantage of her vulnerability, fed her lies and then taken her as he pleased. But that time had vanished, ephemeral as rain in the desert, and he simply embraced her with a chuckle.
"Thank you! Thank you, Sadik!"
"You are more than welcome, my friend," he murmured. When she pulled back, tears coursed down her face, and she dried them hurriedly.
"Again, Sadik, I thank you!"
"Are we to send an army after her?" asked a minister as he watched the woman mount her horse (like a man – how vulgar) and ride away through the gates at dawn, her old sword a welcome weight on her back. Sadik gave him an appalled look.
"All you think of is war," he said wearily. "She is free to go, alone and unaccompanied. She is free."
Sadik frowned to himself at those words, losing himself in thought. Now Erzsébet was free, free to be again with those she loved and where she belonged… Could he be free as well? Or was his duty to destroy all his chances? He did not yet know.
Sadik did not mind diplomacy, as tedious as it could sometimes be. Here he sat, across a table from the haughty, almost malicious ruler of Toro, Antonio, who had seen Al Yildiz's expansion as a dangerous threat. Sadik could see, beneath the caramel skin and earthen curls, the vicious looks given to him by vivid green eyes. "Infidel", they snarled at him. Sadik, however, looked nothing but benevolent.
Over the course of their debates over lands and non-aggression, Sadik saw Antonio's demeanour change from open hostility to begrudging admiration. He even spoke more civilly, and Sadik was able to explain some things more easily.
When they finally paused the treaties for dinner, Antonio came to seek him out.
"You have changed, Sultan," he said. From his tone Sadik could not tell if he was impressed or sneering.
"You have not, my friend," he replied. Antonio leaned against the balustrade of the balcony he had found Sadik at, and gave him a thorough stare. Antonio had no qualms about speaking his mind; a bad move for any diplomat.
"Your country's hunger for new lands has had me worried for the south of Aquila, and for its young ruler."
Sadik raised an eyebrow. "Fear not, King, I shall no longer touch it. I am content with my own lands."
"And yet you are not content," Antonio said suddenly. Sadik jerked his head up, suspicious, but Antonio looked nothing but sorry for him.
"Your heart is no longer in Al Yildiz," Antonio said, and he sounded weary beyond his years. "I do not say this as a political rival, but as one who understands. My own heart no longer belongs in Toro."
Sadik leaned on the balcony beside Antonio. "It belongs in Aquila, does it not?"
Antonio nodded miserably. "He is wonderful and beautiful, but he fears all love his brother over him, and he curses and swears as a shield. He fears even I prefer his brother." He gave Sadik a sharp look. "Tell no one."
"My lips are sealed. Your religion's chokehold is your own business. Yet you shall always be unhappy if you do not admit your affection."
Antonio sighed. "I wish with all my heart that I might be able to reveal what I feel to the world, but… It is not possible."
"Perhaps one day."
"Perhaps one day. Sadik," Antonio said, taking a shuddering breath, "you are a lucky man. The object of your affection clearly loves you back. I envy you and your freedom."
Sadik chuckled bitterly. "I have lost my freedom."
"Perhaps you should reclaim it," Antonio suggested. Sadik raised an eyebrow.
"If you were to seek out your own, then I would."
Antonio's gaze faltered, and fell to the ground. He bit his lip in shame.
"I dare not," he whispered. "Where would we run? Where would we hide?"
"I know not," Sadik admitted sadly. "But at least you would be free."
And at last, he himself knew what he must do.
"Brother, I have to speak with you," Emin said, entering Sadik's chambers without so much as a nod. He was shocked to find his brother dressed in travelling clothes, sitting on his bed, his head held in his hands.
Sadik looked up, smiled, and beckoned his brother closer.
"Emin, you must promise me to be a wise ruler."
"You are leaving?" Emin almost shouted, blinking back treacherous tears. He was not so weak as to cry like a woman.
"Weep if you wish, brother," Sadik said softly, standing up and embracing his brother. "I know you are young, but I have so much faith in you, it is indescribable."
"You run! Like a coward!"
Sadik cupped Emin's cheeks and kissed his forehead.
"I am a filthy coward, dear brother, but you are more worthy of what I cannot appreciate."
Emin sniffled, wiping his nose with a huff. "I take it you have instructions?" he muttered, pouting like the adolescent he had just grown out of.
"Yes, I do. Trust no one. Think with your own head. Go out and see what the people need. Make peace more readily than you make war. Remember there are two sides to every coin, be just and benign, but ruthless when needed. You are the lioness, and Al Yildiz is your cub. Oh, and marry for love, brother. Love is everything."
Emin muttered to himself, before sighing. "I should have known you would not stay," he mumbled, hiding his tears. Sadik caressed his head gently.
"I am called away," he said.
"By whom?" Emin demanded.
"My heart," Sadik replied. Emin gave him a withering look, hesitating barely a moment before flinging his arms around him.
"I will miss you, brother!" he said fiercely. Sadik laughed.
"I would be disappointed if you did not."
With that he pulled away and grabbed a bag of things he needed, strapping his sword to his back. With some supplies and enough water to see him to Al-Huriya, his belligerent camel friend saddled and waiting, he set off. His freedom awaited him.
Gupta hummed to himself as he reordered the sleeping room, bringing in the newly-cleaned carpets and cushions. He needed to busy himself. The weeks had not lessened the pain of abandonment, no matter how voluntarily he had been left. He missed Sadik.
Certainly, he had heard great news from Al Yildiz. The empire was flourishing, like a flower thought dead that had blossomed again, and the merchants were happy once more. The Sultan's return had inspired great things in the land, and it prospered accordingly.
But… was Al Yildiz's fortune and happiness worth sacrificing his own joy for? It was a question he asked himself day and night, and it left him little room for a good night's sleep.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when Herakles skidded in and breathlessly ran into Gupta, knocking the wind from him.
But the boy could not speak, merely pant unintelligibly and point outside. Gupta hurried out, hoping it was not bandits. He was no fighter, after all. He too, however, was left breathless, when he saw who waited there with a smile that seemed arrogant, but Gupta could see was truly happy.
"You… You returned," he murmured. Sadik shrugged, and opened his arms. Gupta abandoned all pretence at dignity and ran into them, embracing Sadik with all the strength he could muster. Sadik chuckled.
"Ah, Gupta," he said, kissing Gupta's lips gently, once, twice, thrice, until the jinn lost count. "Gupta my beloved… What would be the spoils of a thousand battles and the riches of as many lands conquered without you by my side?"
Gupta pulled back, happier than he ever had been, although his only expression was shock. His hands went to his mouth to cover the radiant smile that threatened to paint itself. Sadik brought those hands, smaller than his own, up to his chest and pressed them over his heart.
"Beloved, you are the freedom I have forever longed for," he said.
And Gupta pulled him into a kiss, lost for words. Sadik answered with all the longing he had pent-up, laughing as Herakles gagged in the doorway. He was once again where he belonged.
A/n: It's taken me nigh on six months to complete this. I can only hope it was worth the wait. Thank you for your patience, Tamer Lorika. I owe you a great debt, here.
Just some notes on the story:
Al Yildiz is the symbol of Turkey, the Star and the Crescent Moon. Aslan is Turkish for lion, and has nothing to do with a certain pseudo-Christ in a famous children's book series.
Shaheen is Arabic for falcon. Gata is Greek for cat.
I have taken exaggerated liberties with the Arabic legends of the Jinn. I couldn't exactly find a creature that would suit Gupta's role, so I took some poetic license. They are, in reality, fire spirits who are sometimes good, evil or neutrally benevolent, and one of the three sentient creations of Allah, along with mankind and angels. Here I made them spirits tied to a specific place, with magic powers. Perhaps Gupta's mother was actually a half-angel, and couldn't think of what to call herself? That is another story that will never be written.
Gupta's mother is, of course, Ancient Egypt, but I have no idea who his father might be. A personification of the city of Alexandria? He'd make a good scholar.
The Szépasszony are Hungarian fairies. Every country has its own versions of fairies, not just England. I like to think that they have simply forgotten how to see them.
Emin is Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In case you're wondering, he marries Angelique (Seychelles), and they rule wisely until the end of their days. Al Yildiz has its golden age under them.
Erzsébet is married to Roderich in this, although their 'strange relationship' really means he spends most of his time with Gilbert.
Antonio and the younger ruler of Southern Aquila (who is of course Lovino) do run away. They take refuge in the mountains of Gata, and are never heard of again. Happily ever after, the end.
If there's anything else you would like to know, don't hesitate to ask me.