Kaf, the realm of the djinn
The birds were growling.
No, not again! Zayne leaned over his oud, his fingers dancing across the strings as the song swelled from him. He was the sole Minstrel of Kaf; no others shared this trust. His music wove into the harmonies of his world, balancing the elemental powers of ma-at. His ma-at and his music could not be the source of the chaos.
Yet, as his voice grew in richness, so did the unrest of the birds grow louder. Their tumult held mirror to the beckoning ferocity inside him. To the battle between his ma-at and the strange force fueling his song.
His audience, sprawled on cushions scattered across the night-cooling sand, murmured restively, but he paid them no mind. His passion was for the beauty and the clarity of music. Only the oud and the voice, which gave substance to song and soul, mattered. Only the strength of his ma-at, the elemental fuel of his harmony, mattered.
His powerful ma-at wove through the music, enchanting all the senses, a counter to the strange rising force within him. The taste of honey and the brush of an alpaca’s hair heightened each note. Scents of sandalwood and green melon gave way to the spicy intoxication of clove and mimosa. Fierce arousal shot through him, hardening his body and demanding release, and he shared that erotic need with his song.
The unwonted seductive lure of the strange force captured him, and at last he submitted to its call. Lyrics transfigured to dark deeds and darker hearts.
A bolt of lightning slashed across the sky. No thunder followed, but the wind rushed through the circle with a moan. Where moments ago was sunset and the pleasures of a quiet eve, now was night fire, the hot sirocco, and the growl of birds. Even the brilliant moon of Kaf hid behind roiling clouds.
Still, he sang, denying the unthinkable. As the feral song grew, the sparkle of djinn emotions danced on the edges of his vision. White and gold deepened to red, purple and blue. The murmurs from the audience grew in volume. What was this eerie melody from their Minstrel? He could almost hear the questions. Yet, he did not look at them; his auburn hair shielded his face from view, as it always did when he played.
Flame encased him, a shimmering blue spire that encircled but did not scorch. Instead it pulled at the air and heat, as though fed by his thrumming blood and his powerful ma-at. His fingers flew across the strings, aching with the need to release the building alien power, while his ma-at fought against the intrusion.
Lightning crackled and danced in whips of blinding whiteness. Wind tore at the linens and silks of his audience. Scarlet geysers of lava burst from spreading cracks in the sand. Outward manifestations of his inner battle.
Someone from the audience screamed, and several others scrambled to their feet. A single, eerie screech cut through the night. The birds silenced before the might of ma-at and the violent unrest of Kaf.
Minstrel, what do you do? The deep masculine voice of the Oracle of Kaf dared to pierce his absorption. Zayne’s glance shot upward, but he saw not the shadowy figure of the powerful djinni. Only the faces of his audience—lit with fascination and fear, shock and need—surrounded him.
I feel the unrest of Kaf here in the Tower Lands, Alesander added.
For a moment, Zayne considered ignoring the question. Djinn could not read another’s thoughts, only send their own.
Zayne? The voice could not be ignored.
I but sing. His fingers slowed as he struggled to reign in the tumultuous song and the accompanying chaos. He could no longer deny his music and his tumult created the strange disturbances, but he dared not admit that to Alesander.
No, your song is never that simple. Music feeds the soul of Kaf, and you are the only Minstrel. Only you keep our harmony.
Do you think I could forget that?
Your responsibility is to the people and the land.
I know. Abruptly he broke off the conversation, fearing further contact would reveal his cursed malady.
Note by note, he fought against the tumultuous force. Beat by beat he slowed the driving, foreign melody. Each time he sang, though, the task grew harder. The indigo silk of his shirt stuck to the perspiration coating him. With agonizing care he transformed the music, locked away the turmoil, and reestablished the harmony. Let only ma-at color his voice.
The fires waned, and the land settled. Wind gentled to a breeze, lightning disappeared and once more pleased djinn emotions sparkled through the night. A lively, charming air replaced the dense song. The audience’s collective sigh of relief was almost a palpable thing.
The new song was light as air, fresh as a breeze off the cool oasis. With his ma-at he added the scent of laurel and the taste of lime, gave them misted pictures of palms and grass and an intertwined couple.
He wove his ma-at with song, with the motion of a finger and the unvoiced chants of his power. He restored the harmony. Yet, even now, the winds threatened to lift, while desire and wildness still beat against his throat and chest. Ruthlessly he ignored them to intone the words that would soften the memories of his audience and soothe their disquiet.
He was unable, however, to soften or soothe himself.
The song ended on a single, clear note which faded into the night. Zayne pushed to his feet, acknowledged the applause with a simple incline of his head, slung the strap of his oud over his shoulder, and then strode away into the desert. He sought the solitude and luxury of his tent pitched a distance away.
A woman stepped into his path. He felt her heat before he saw her shadow. Neheri. She had given him her name earlier, when he had first entered the tiny village and she had set herself in his attention.
“Minstrel, after such a performance, do you wish solitude?” Her voice was low and seductive.
Urgent heat shot through him again. As always, the music left him aroused and keen of each sense, but lately this awareness had become a sharp thirst, undeniable and unquenchable. Maybe, for a few unrestrained hours, she could relieve his pressing needs and he would give her the pleasure she craved.
“Come closer,” he commanded, drawing her near with only the music of his voice. She leaned against him, all willow curves, and his fingers threaded through her dark hair. He rubbed the downy strands between his forefinger and thumb, then captured her chin and lifted her face to his brief kiss. All he could risk for the moment, else the wildness overwhelm him. And Kaf. “Is this what you want?”
“Yes,” she breathed. “No, I want more, our Minstrel.”
Not Zayne, only Minstrel. In seeking identity, he had lost it. Zayne smiled, sensually, ruefully, without humor, though she would not recognize it as such. He released her. “Go, Neheri.”
“I can satisfy you.” Seeking to draw him near, her hands ran down his back and curled around his oud.
“Do not touch my instrument,” he warned, the voice gentle but utterly implacable.
Her arms dropped away, as though burnt, but she recovered quickly. “Could I touch another instrument, then?” she cooed with coy seduction.
“Are you sure?”
It was a warning, but she heard it as an invitation. “Yes.” She slid her hips across his. “I know your need.”
“This is the need of the Minstrel.” He bent to the kiss again. It was the kiss he needed to give, the release he craved. He was ruthless, violent even, demanding all of her with the touch of his lips and teeth, with his ma-at and his seething emotions.
She pulled away with a murmur of protest.
He let her go, knowing to his soul she was not the one he needed. “Go, Neheri,” he repeated, his voice a mere sigh. This time, she did not demur, but disappeared into the night.
Zayne entered the tent and stripped off his clothes, leaving him wearing only a loose cord around his neck. From the woven cord hung his round turquoise tablet—the symbol of his djinn status, and hidden beneath it rested a second, half tablet. The sole possession of his youth. With a wave of his hand and a quick chant, he cleansed clothes and body. Exhaustion grabbed hold of him at last, and the mound of pillows beckoned him to rest. First, however, there was a task he must perform.
Naked, he knelt before the circle of stones at the center of his tent. He stretched out his hands and chanted the brief incantation. Flames ignited at the center of the stones.
Zayne fingered the smooth warmth of his turquoise tablet. He was Minstrel of Kaf. His songs fed the fire and air of Kaf; he was part of her energy and her harmony. He could not stop singing; voice was as vital to him as breath and drink, nor could he deprive Kaf of his Minstrel’s touch. There was no other to take his place.
But, this strange new power became part of every song. It fought with his ma-at and brought disharmony to the land and the people he was sworn to nurture. Yet the dark beauty within it was as compelling and mesmerizing as any he had felt. The songs it fueled could not be denied.
He had to master this power. Or he had to eliminate it. A wrong choice would be disaster for his music and for Kaf.
He thought he knew the answer. Although few djinn united in the soul bonds of zani and zaniya—male and female as one, Minstrels had always taken a zaniya. The zaniya of a Minstrel was great chanteuse, whose voice blended with his in the harmonies of Kaf; she was as vital to him as his ma-at or his song.
In this, as in so many other things, he was different, for he had never found such a woman, and he was well past the age other Minstrels had found their mate. No more could he leave such an important matter to the whims of fate. He must find his zaniya.
So, this evening, he would perform the ritual of divination, seeking guidance. A divination was not a ritual to be performed lightly. It could not reveal the future, for the future was shaped by the choices of free will. Instead, it provided a path to follow, but often the path was murky and the divination difficult to interpret.
He took a deep breath, the rhythm of his heart hard upon his chest. Who was the woman to be his zaniya? He had to find her. Once he did, there would be no barriers to returning the harmony and balance to his song. For what woman on Kaf would refuse the Minstrel as zani?
Intoning the incantations, he picked up a vial of oil and sprinkled seven drops on the fire. Purple flames erupted upward; the heat beat against his face and chest. The tent filled with the scent of violets. Still chanting, he spread his arms outward, and a whirling wind circled across him, twisting the flames downward to a knotted inferno.
A plume of smoke rose from the center, and in its heart a face formed. A woman’s face. A woman he did not know.
Eagerly he sought some clue in the visage. Nothing about her was familiar.
Something about her seemed almost . . . alien. Hair close to her scalp—perhaps she pulled it back?—and firm jaw, eyes and brows that tilted up, an unsmiling mouth, a sensual full lower lip, and a rounded nose. She decorated her ears with three round gems at the bottom. Hers was an intriguing face, with the contrast of smooth hair and erotic eyes, of drawn mouth and kissable lips, of soft cheeks and determined chin. As he studied her, his body hardened and rose to life.
Zaniya? Was she to be his zaniya? His body said yes, but, “Who is she?” he whispered.
Madeline Fairbanks. The plume of smoke curled around his neck and ears and whispered out the odd name. Madeline Fairbanks.
No djinni on Kaf had such a name.
No djinni on Kaf. The smoke whispered in echo.
“No,” he hissed, his gut turned to rock. His soul was connected to his world, the source of djinn ma-at, and as Minstrel this connection was stronger and deeper than that of most of the djinn. His zaniya must also be of Kaf. The smoke began to break apart as he denied what his eyes saw and his instinct accepted.
He added another drop of oil, replenishing smoke and flame and violet. “I need more. Where do I find her?”
Images danced through the fire: a jungle of twisted trees and thick brush; stagnant dark water beneath and around the roots, the ripple of an armored reptile as it swam through the swamp. The scene shifted to hard walls and impossibly tall buildings, people everywhere, crowded and hurrying. His lip curled with disdain. Everything about the land was foreign.
At last he saw a sign. New Orleans, the letters read.
This was Terra. Or Earth, as the humans called their world.
A world his mother had detested and taught him to despise.
He recoiled from the flames. An impossible thought. No woman of Terra, no matter how mesmerizing her voice, could be zaniya to a Minstrel of Kaf. A Terran had not the rhythms and harmonies of Kaf in her soul. Yet he could not deny the instinctive response of his body, nor the guidance of the divination.
He looked again at the face of Madeline Fairbanks. Perhaps the path was not as direct as he first surmised, and Madeline Fairbanks would provide the answers. Would she guide him to the djinni destined to sing with him?
“Is she my zaniya?”
The divination did not change.
“Show me what I must do,” he begged.
Only Madeline’s face remained. The divination had shown him a path. Now was his choice what to do with it.
“How am I to find this woman?”
Her face faded, replaced with a second, brief image. Another woman, much older, but this one he knew. Tildy Maehara, the Terran woman who had helped raise Isis, the zaniya of the Protector of Ma-at.
He had met Tildy on Kaf a few times, and to his surprise he had liked the Terran woman. Once, he had even gone with Isis to Tildy’s house, his single visit to Terra, but he had left very quickly, uncomfortable with the strange forces of magic on the alien world. Yet, go to this world he must, for through Tildy he would meet Madeline.
Zayne watched the divination fire until it died, then pushed to his feet and stretched. He would rest tonight, make his preparations tomorrow. Then, he would go to Terra and discover the answers he needed.