Raele often did as she was told by her father, a wealthy widower, as the only family in his life. She cleaned where he said to, cooked what he asked for, learned to count money so he didn’t have to when he was tired and needed rest, and she would have married any man he’d arranged her to wed, had Raele’s father not died before marrying her off.
A woman rarely chose her lover in the grand desert, and even more rarely was this same woman the daughter of a successful merchant. Normally a rich man wanted his daughter to marry men in rich families of equal merit. Without a father to direct Raele, anyone had a chance to win the young woman’s affections.
Jadin saw himself as that anyone. He had little money, but many aspirations. A soldier could be happy simply to have a lot of money and a good wife, while Raele would be nothing more than a high-priced conquest for other men of her status. They wouldn’t appreciate her.
Perhaps she knew this, Jadin believed, because she turned away the sons of her father’s friends with barely a moment’s hesitation. They gave her sweets, jewels, and promises, but she wouldn’t give them her time.
“What fools,” Jadin said. “She already has the money for anything they could buy. A promising man must offer more.”
Jadin appeared at Raele’s door one morning to show off his swordplay, a fierce and brutal display, so she would know he could protect her. He then told her of evenings when they could watch the sun set together, as lovers did in romantic stories. Lastly, he whispered secrets he’d learned from whores and concubines abroad in his warring that would send her screaming in delight. Yet when he offered to demonstrate, she laughed and turned him away without offering a reason, like he came calling as commonly as a richer young man.
Other men with little money were soon turned away. Sculptors, singers, and other soldiers visited Raele’s doorstep, and left as quickly as they’d appeared. “I alone have made her laugh,” Jadin said to himself, watching Raele’s home and briefly believing he had an advantage.
Someone else seemed to have a better advantage. In the nights to come, Jadin discovered that there was one suitor allowed inside Raele’s stone house. He dressed in heavy, dark clothing, covering his head with a hood and scarf, as if he was used to traveling the windswept desert. No one seemed to know him, and yet Raele let him enter her home without pause.
After a few days, the tide of other suitors shrank to a trickle, and after a few more days, only Jadin bothered to approach Raele before dusk. She sent him away each time, but not before he said a few flowery words, and asked a few intrusive questions about her nighttime visitor.
“Is he a foreigner? Is he poor and seeking your wealth? Is he even worth your time?”
Raele answered nothing and Jadin was forced to wait for night to get some idea of this stranger’s habits. Finally, he grew fed up with simply spying and lingering in the shadows, and decided to confront the man. He waited for the covered-up visitor to leave Raele’s house an hour before dawn and followed closely, through alleys and streets, under laundry lines and past the briefly quiet market. He carried on his person a sword, a hammer, and a nail, in case the other man needed more than being threatened. The stranger either knew he was being followed or wanted to be sure no one could, but Jadin had tracked enemies through endless deserts and foreign jungles, much harsher climates than a city of sand and clay.
At last, on the city’s outskirts, Jadin caught up with the stranger, tackling him to the ground and baring his sword. “Leave now and let Raele be mine, without any curse or vengeance on your part,” Jadin said. “If you don’t, I’ll cut off your manhood and stuff it down your throat, and you’ll be of little use to her.”
“I have no manhood and so that’s of no use to Raele anyway,” the stranger said, and he yanked away hood and scarf to reveal the face of a she. “I am Lahui.”
“You?” Jadin cried. “And Raele?”
“Anyone has a chance at her heart without her father deciding for her, and this woman is that anyone,” Lahui said. “We are deeply in love. Petty riches and flesh are nothing to two spirits entwined.”
Jadin had heard enough. His blade slid into the woman’s chest, cutting through her heart and lungs, and then he dragged her by the hair over the rough desert ground. Her body was left on a dune outside the city’s borders, where her blood pooled beneath her body, into the sand. Jadin sheathed his sword and then placed a nail into the sand where the blood gathered, hammering it clumsily into the earth. “Your death will keep you out of Raele’s arms,” he said. “And this nail will keep you from coming back as an efreet, even if your will is strong enough to return from being murdered. Goodbye, my rival without manhood.”
The soldier went on visiting Raele during the day as before so as not to arouse her suspicion that he had anything to do with Lahui’s disappearance, and he even continued asking about her, but he didn’t watch Raele’s door at night for a week. When at last he looked on one evening, he found Raele peeking out her door every hour or two, staring longingly into the darkness as if she expected the woman to return.
“Your stranger hasn’t visited you in some time,” Jadin said the next day. “I can tell you’ve been getting more sleep.”
“She isn’t coming back, I fear,” Raele said.
“Then will you give me a chance?”
“I will not.”
Jadin grew angry. “But she can’t speak sweetly to you. She’s silent!”
“And cannot complain.”
“She’s gone, Raele.”
“And will never wear out her welcome.”
“And so she’ll never grow old.”
Frustrated, but still believing Raele would give him a chance if he could only break her love for the other woman, he headed back to the city’s outskirts and found the place where he’d left Lahui’s corpse. This time he carried his sword, a small chisel hard enough to scrape metal, and a brass bottle. Lahui’s clothes had been torn up by the wind, her blood had either evaporated or sunk into the sand, and her flesh had quickly rotted and dried, revealing bones in some places and bite marks in others, but the nail remained standing as if it had been driven into immovable wood.
He yanked it out quickly and thrust the bottle spout-down over the same spot on the ground. The brass quaked in his hands, being quickly filled from the sand, and he used the chisel to scrape Lahui’s name into the bottle’s side before lifting it. “Lahui, I have caught you in this bottle bearing your name,” he said. “I am your master now and you will do as I command.”
Within the bottle, Lahui dwelled as a tiny flame shaped like a woman. “As you say, my master.”
Jadin took the bottle back to Raele’s house and asked her to admit him inside, which she’d never done before. She protested, as he expected, until he promised her news of Lahui. She wasn’t certain how he knew the woman’s name, but she let him inside and shut the door behind him. The house was as lavish with riches as Jadin had imagined, only much of it was cluttered and dusty. When he was Raele’s husband, he would make sure she took proper care of the home.
“What news do you have of Lahui?” she asked excitedly.
“She is dead,” Jadin said, and watched Raele’s eyes bleed with tears. “And then she has returned, as an efreet, and she is all the things you worried over.” Jadin held up the bottle. “Lahui, let Raele listen to your complaints.”
Illustration by Falineowlight.
Lahui emerged from the brass bottle as a fiery spirit standing up to Raele’s height. A flaming tail tied her form to the bottle’s spout like a dog’s leash. She glanced mournfully at Raele, and then to Jadin. “As you say, my master. I cannot properly feel the floor or water in this form, only air and fire. I want to eat, but can only do so when ordered, for I’m a prisoner in a small place. I detest being trapped in a bottle. I despise serving the man who murdered me. I hate—”
“Silence,” Jadin snapped. He realized he should have specified complaints, ones that would have irritated Raele. All he saw from her was a look of horror that swiveled from Jadin to Lahui and back. “Lahui, wear out your welcome.”
Lahui raised a fiery eyebrow. “I do not understand, my master.”
“Never mind then! Grow old, woman!”
“I cannot grow old, for I have no flesh.”
“Then get flesh!”
“As you say, my master.” Lahui’s tail broke away from the brass bottle and flew into Raele’s mouth, followed by the rest of her fiery form. A tiny squeak escaped Raele’s lips before all the fire vanished, and then Lahui’s flames flickered in the living woman’s eyes while Lahui’s voice lingered in her mouth. “I have flesh, master. You wish it to grow old?”
“No!” Jadin shouted. “I didn’t mean her. Never mind then! Get back in the bottle, immediately!”
“As you say, my master,” Lahui said. Jadin expected the fiery head or tail to emerge from Raele’s mouth, but instead Raele’s hands flew over her head. Her body lifted into the air, her garments billowing with strange winds, and then she dove into the brass bottle’s mouth, clothes, flesh, and efreet all squeezing through the tiny spout with a sharp shriek.
Jadin stood silent for a moment, unsure of what to do, unsure how Raele could have fit into the bottle, and then there came a pounding at Raele’s door. “What’s all that screaming?” a man shouted. “Is that soldier bothering you?” a woman called. “Open this door!” cried other voices.
“Give us a moment,” Jadin said. His hand scurried for his sword’s hilt, ready to try breaking the bottle, but for all he knew Raele would emerge as a tiny person, and he knew for certain that he’d lose control over the efreet. “Lahui, send Raele back out, while you remain in the bottle!”
“As you say, my master,” Lahui’s voice said, and then a mixture blood, muscle, skin, and bone burst from the bottle, spraying so fiercely that the bottle slipped out of Jadin’s hands. It slid over the floor, emptying Raele’s body in a torrent narrow enough to fit through the bottle’s spout, until the carpets and Jadin’s boots were covered with the crushed and chopped up remains of the woman who owned the house.
The door broke in at that moment from the force of a half-dozen people, and the lot of them gasped and screamed at the sight of Raele’s mashed-up body. Jadin’s voice caught in his throat as men grasped his arms and knocked his sword away. “Efreet!” he croaked. “Get a nail!”
“The only nail you’ll need is the one that holds your tongue once you’ve been judged,” a man said, and Jadin was dragged out of the house. The wind seemed to slam the door shut behind him, as no mortal hands touched it.
Within the bottle, two fiery efreets pressed closely together, their tails entwined as if they were a single flame. “I’m sorry for destroying your body,” Lahui said. “I didn’t know another way to end this.”
“It may be better now, if we couldn’t be together any other way,” Raele said. “What will I do now?”
“You could leave,” Lahui said. “Only my name is scraped onto the metal outside of this bottle.”
“I wouldn’t leave you, so long as I don’t wear out my welcome. So what will we do?”
“We’ll be quiet so no one knows we’re here until we want them to,” Lahui said. “And we’ll never grow old, so we can wait as long as we wish, if I don’t wear out my welcome.”
“You never could, no matter how long we wait.”
“Until then, let’s enjoy ourselves. Spirits can be entwined in ways that bodies never can. We can do as we please until we’re disturbed, and then we’ll see if freedom is in my future.”
No one disturbed the bottle or its occupants for some time. Jadin was soon killed. His tongue was cut from his mouth and nailed to his forehead, his manhood cut from his body and stuffed in his throat, and then the city’s people threw stones at his body until he could no longer move. Soldiers sent by the sultan soon claimed the riches of Raele’s house and the bottle was placed in a chest along with other spoils. The men who had come calling for Raele mourned the loss of the woman almost as much as the opportunity to marry her, for the chance to have her could have been anyone’s—man, woman, or even efreet.