Thanks to overwhelmingly positive support from my Old Races Short Story Project patrons, I’ve been given the go-ahead to post the first ORSSP short story publicly as part of the proof-of-fiction-committed for the The Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award. So if you’re not an ORSSP patron, say thanks to the generosity of those who were as you read this story!
“Salt Water Stains the Sand” takes place long before the Negotiator Trilogy, and is the oft-requested story of “the first time Malik lost”.
Salt Water Stains the Sand
My name is Tahira Firaz Galia al-Shareef di Nazmi al-Massri, and today I have killed my brother.
He does not know it yet, but I see it as he limps away over desert sands. He is an exile, lost to his people, and because of that, he is dead. Because of me, he is dead.
It is not how I hoped this story would end.
“He is wealthy and powerful. Respected among the clans. You could do no better.”
“He is old.” A silly argument: I am old. There are very few young among us anymore, not since the Bedouins came to ride their horses through our sands and take the few resources we once called our own. The humans; my father and brother would not be pleased that I know their tribes by name, or that I care. They are all young, every one of them, even their most venerable sages. The most extraordinary see a hundred changes of the season, and I have long since lost count of how many soft desert springs I have witnessed. So: I am old.
But not as old as Amar, who is so old the desert sun has bleached the blackness from his hair. So old that the sandstorms have driven lines into his skin, so old that his scowl reminds me of young mountains, harsh and sharp with their newly-risen ridges. He is old, and has thirteen wives, and I will not be the next.
“Tahira,” Malik says with a winsome note. “Tahira, you must listen to reason. Amar is powerful. He could destroy us if you refuse him.”
“How?” Oh yes, I am young by comparison. Arrogant with my youth. Arrogant with my beauty, which I have been assured since childhood is incomparable. The appeal is in my eyes, green as the northern sea, when most of the djinn have eyes of desert gold and river silt brown. Malik’s eyes are like that: brown, so brown that even in sunlight they are nearly black. Now they are bright with hope, though; bright with the conviction that he alone can convince his willful sister of her foolishness. And if anyone could, it would be he. I have seen that Malik treats other women with disdain, but that is the way of my people. Whether we learned it from the humans or they from us, it seems a mark of the desert tribes. Within our families, within the sanctuaries of our homes, we are priceless jewels, but without, we are marks for barter, like the horses the Bedouin sell.
I do not believe Amar would consider me a jewel, except as another one to parade through our short-lived desert cities, and I have come to think there is more to a life than being admired from a distance. I steal bits of knowledge from the world beyond the deserts, murmurs of gossip and of stories, and I hear of women–human women–who travel the world in search of adventures and equality. These are the things I dream of, though they are utterly forbidden.
“He is wealthy,” Malik says. “Wealthy beyond the djinn, Tahira, you know that. You know that he–”
Silence. Utter silence, because though yes, of course, I do know, as does everyone, no one, not one of us, will admit aloud how Amar has broken the bonds of our people. We are djinn. We are an ancient and proud race, dancers with the wind, and one of the few, so few, remaining Old Races. Our ancient enemies, the water-born selkie, have disappeared, and dragons have not been seen in the skies for hundreds of years. Some no doubt still exist, eking out a worm-like existence beneath the sands, but their pride is gone. No gargoyle has come to record the histories of my people in a generation, and for the Old Races, a generation is long indeed. Nor do vampires haunt mortal nights, though they were never many to begin with. And we were all the most populous of our peoples, the ones who survived the longest.
And Amar has, in truth, betrayed us to the humans.
Not so boldly as that, no. He has not spoken our secrets to them; of that we can be sure. No djinn would, because although we follow our own laws within the clans, we respect the very few strictures that bind all the Old Races. One is to never tell humans who and what we are, for fear of being hunted out of existence. So, no: Amar has not gone that far.
But it is an well-known secret that his desert travels bring him not to the distant oases and rare growing fields but to the ancient buried tombs of the pharaohs and mortal princes. He guides humans to them for a fee, for a portion of the gold, which we have no especial use for. He has done this for centuries, aeons, but only in the past few years have the tomb raiders begun to ask for him. Only recently has he become known outside our tribes, and in becoming so known, become powerful. Humans are drawn to him, and now, ever more, the djinn look to him for leadership.
“And you would have me marry him?” I ask sharply. The wind outside our tent is as harsh, wiping away my words. This is not a safe conversation, even with much of it going unspoken. No one keeps a secret from the djinn. We ride on the air, listening in eager silence until we have learned what we wish to know. Only then do we dance away again to manifest in bodily form to eat and sleep and love. This is why my own desire to break the rituals of my people has gone unsaid: I can trust no one with such madness, not even my beloved brother.
“He could destroy us,” Malik says again, more softly, and for the second time I say “How? We trade with the other tribes as we all do. Father’s eastern travels bring back silks and spices no one else can match. As long as there is a desire for those things, Amar cannot be our ruin.”
“Unless he pays another to make the journey instead.”
I am dumbstruck, so startled I let myself whirl into insubstantiality. Now I can feel the rising wind as part of me, can feel the grains of sand it carries as warning of an oncoming storm. I can taste the desert’s grit and resolution, the promise that nothing can stand in its way. It substantiates me, brings me back to the speaking world, and gives me voice that is rougher than how I spoke before. “Only Father knows the trade winds over the mountains. They are our family’s security. He would never share them with anyone, and the only other choice is by sea.”
It is Malik’s turn to shudder, though he keeps his grip on solidity better than I. Salt water is anathema to our people, the one thing that can bind us to bodies and force us to do another’s bidding. No djinn travels by sea, even if the winds there are most favorable. They might die, too, and leave a djinni stranded over calm waters, waiting to see which lasted longer: his ability to remain incorporeal, or the quiet of the air. No: the sea is not an option, and there is no other way to China’s riches.
“But what if he could be made to tell?” Malik’s voice is low. He is kneeling, unusually supplicant for my brother. “What if salt water was used to bind him, and the routes commanded from him then?”
I stare. “Amar wouldn’t.”
Malik lifts his gaze, fear plain to see in his brown eyes. It comes to me that he was lying before. Lying with the brightness in his face, the humor and winsomeness in his an act for a doting little sister. He was masking fear, hoping I would bend to charm before his terror broke through. I rise, silk robes hissing against each other, and there is shrill demand in my voice: “Where is Father now?”
Malik looks away, and a shriek rips from my throat. We are mist, we are fog, we are dancers on the wind, but it is with concussive force that I dissipate. The energy expended rings in my ears, outrage and fear, and I use it to direct myself against the rising storm. Crosswise to the winds, chasing distance as though it is not there, and when I materialize it is within the very heart of Amar’s tents: within the harem, where the women gather to wait out the storm.
I am a dervish, whirling through them. I hold a curved blade in one hand, seized from a table, and as I dance I cut and cut and cut. Screams stutter in my hearing, my ears catching the sound only as I take form long enough to slice and slice and slice again, and when I am done I fling the blade tip-down into the carpets. It quivers where it lands, but I do not share its hesitancy as I snarl, “It is me Amar wants. Tell him to release my father and come for me if he dares.”
Then I am gone, and with me comes a thousand strands of floating hair, the prize and jewel of the women of the harem shorn away.
“I will not face a woman.” Amar’s contempt is staggering. He is furious, lined face flushed with rage, but he holds the tatters of his honor in place, as if it is not a woman who has humiliated him and his harem.
I spit, shocking waste of water in a desert land. There are few signs of greater derision among my people, and there is a collective indrawn breath from those who have gathered to judge our cases. “A woman should not dare,” comes a voice from the crowd, and I spit a second time.
“Should not dare spit on one who is beneath contempt or should not say aloud what we all know? How dare this man claim to be honorable when we know, we all know that he does business with human treasure hunters? When we know he profits fr–”
“From their greed.” Amar has controlled his anger and interrupts in his beautiful, rich voice. “Human treasure hunters who desecrate human graves. Why should I–we–not profit from their lack of respect for their dead? Why should we, who are part of this land’s history from before humanity’s rise, not be part of its future as well? Why should we not barter and bargain and shape our destiny, rather than hide and wait for our doom as the others have done? It is against the laws,” he says, disgust rolling through the words. “Laws which assure our destruction. We do not have to confess all, to show ourselves to them, to become human, in order to control and manipulate them. The laws would have us die away, when we might do so much better.”
My stomach slips. This is not the argument he is here to make. He is meant to face me in a fight for my hand. A fight for my father’s safety, not twist the moment to make us look at the choices we have and are making. The worst of it, the worst of it is that impossibly, impossibly, I agree with him. We will die, we are dying, without bold action, and his are the boldest imaginable. But that is not the battle I meant to fight.
“Tahira al-Massri might do better, too,” Amar murmurs. “She might stand at my side, first wife, as I lead our people into that future. I have her father’s permission. Now I will have her.”
“No.” It is all slipping away from me. My father, my beloved father, stands beside Amar now. There are no marks on him, no dampness that threatens of seawater used as a weapon. His expression is serene, with no sorrow hidden in its depths. He belongs to Amar now, whether through fear or bargaining, and I am the price of that bargain. My hands clench in impotent fear. It does not matter that I agree with Amar’s madness. I will not be bargained for: my future is worth more than that. To me, if no one else, and there is only one threat I have left to make. Not a threat; threats lack credence, and I mean what I say with every fiber of my being. “Then I will walk into the sea and be drowned, and the djinn will lose not only me but any children I might bear.”
“That will not be necessary.” Malik, Malik, darling brother, foolish brother, comes forward from the gathering, his dark eyes calm. “If you will not face her, Amar, then face me. If I lose, it is my life forfeit to your whim rather than Tahira’s. And if I win, it is your fortune and place of power within the clans that is mine. But you cannot refuse my challenge,” he says more softly, “unless you are a coward.”
I do not even see the first strike, it is so fast. I do not see Amar dissipate, nor reappear, only that my brother is suddenly on his knees. In the next moment he too is gone, and every one of us gathered on the sands edges backward to give them room.
It is not like a mortal battle, a battle of djinn. Men stand and face one another, always seeing where his opponent comes from, always observing the coming blow. When djinn fight, it is a flurry of sandstorms, of wind given dire personality of its own. We can do each other no harm when we remain incorporeal, and so the dervishes whip around one another, throwing sand and spinning air until one, oh so suddenly, becomes something like a man, and there is a clash of swords.
Only the briefest clash, though, before they are both air again, neither having gained the advantage. Blade hits blade, no more. A test of strength and of speed, but never a killing blow. There are laws, among the Old Races, about killing those of our own. We respect that, outside the tribes, but within, oh, within.
Again sand sprays, blades smash together, and wind whips away. In time they will have the other’s measure, and then will stand to fight; that is the only way an end can come. That is the manner in which djinn fight. My brother is younger, which may stand him well in the end: stamina will matter. But Amar is old and wily, and that may be Malik’s undoing. I have no sense of it, only of my heart beating so hard it underscores the clash of their blades, and of the coldness of my hands despite the desert heat. Again they meet, swords ringing, and dissipate. Again. Again. Again.
I had not thought it could be done. No one watching thought it could be done: that much is clear from the gasp that arises. It takes such anticipation, such understanding of the opponent, such certainty, that no one save the most ancient of warriors would even try, much less succeed.
Amar is that most ancient warrior, and success is blood on his blade.
He is kneeling when he manifests. Kneeling, with his saber thrust backward, captured between his arm and body. It is a wicked curved line, deadly sharp, a low strike. Except he is motionless; there is no strike made.
Malik manifests around the blade.
It is his thigh that is pierced as he swings much too high, prepared for, expecting, an ordinary clash of swords. Color drains from his face, shock so great he cannot even scream. Two objects cannot occupy the same space, and Amar’s sword was there first.
Amar twists. Yanks. Stands.
Blood, and then Malik, fall to the sand.
The bone is cracked: I have heard it, and the sand is swallowing the rain of blood. Amar looks over his shoulder, then shakes his blade free of blood. Once, twice, thrice. Then he walks to me. Says, “Your life for his. Let it be a worthy sacrifice, little girl.”
He evaporates, as does every other djinn who is not by blood my kin. I cross the sand in quick steps to catch Malik in my arms. I dissolve. Come back. Dissolve again, holding him all the time. Again. Again. Again. Until finally he whispers, “Enough,” and I cry out, relief hurting my throat. I help him to his feet, shaking with gladness. The shift from corporeal to wind heals.
But not well enough. Malik’s face spasms as he puts weight on the injured leg. Only injured, no longer deadly. I catch him again, ready to take him to the wind a thousand times more. He says, “Enough,” again, and I go still, heartache and confusion thrumming through my body.
“You’ve saved me,” he rasps. “I could not have shifted. The limp is nothing, Tahira. You’ve saved me.”
“For exile.” My father, forgotten about but now implacable. I jerk toward him, sickness rising as he speaks again. “You will leave the deserts, Ebul Alima Malik al-Shareef di Nazmi al-Massri, never to return again. It is the law of the Old Races.”
“But he would have been honored,” I cry. “Elevated, had he succeeded.”
“But he failed, and the price for trying to kill one another is exile.”
“Outside the tribes!”
Malik puts a hand on my shoulder. Shakes his head when I look at him, and then without a word turns and limps away across the sand. I stare after him, emptiness gnawing a hole in my heart that grows ever-larger as distance takes him. Then he is gone, and I know that my brother is dead. For that cost, my future is my own.
Salt water stains the sand.