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[personal profile] glitterburn
Title: Children of Dust
Fandom: TVXQ
Pairing: Yunho/Changmin
Rating: PG13
Summary: The djinn should not fall in love with the children of dust, for their union can only end in grief.
Notes: AU and AH. Ginnayê (sing. ginnaya, meaning ‘protector’) is the Aramaic term for the tutelary daimons/deities of Palmyra. They had a close relationship with their human charges and to a certain extent could be considered similar to ‘guardian angels’. There is some debate as to which word is more ancient, ginnaya or the Arabic djinni (deriving from the root ‘to conceal; to cover with darkness’); both words seem to refer to the same sort of beings. | Nasr (‘Vulture’) is an idol from the time of Noah, as mentioned in the Koran (71:23).


Children of Dust

Curiosity was always his downfall.

While others of his kind contented themselves to live within a single drop of water, Changmin splashed about in travertine pools, or lay beneath the surface at the bottom of a village well and listened to the gossip of the women, or later, when he grew more daring, crept through the narrow copper pipes into the bathhouses and watched men and women at sport.

“Humans are forbidden to us,” one of the Elders told him. “As we were born of smokeless fire, so they are children of dust. Yet though we have the greater power, still they think themselves superior. They know words that bind us; they have iron with which to chain us. They would make us slaves to do their bidding, for once caught and released, we must obey them until they set us free a second time—and no human can bear to part from the splendour of a djinni.”

The Elder fixed him with an unblinking stare. “Do not be caught. Toy with them if you must—and you will, for you are still young—but do not allow them to catch you. Regret has a long memory.”

For all that contact with humans was forbidden, many djinn fell prey to the children of dust. It was difficult to resist the lure of a creature at once so similar and so different. That their beauty faded so quickly was part of the attraction. Some of Changmin’s cousins tried to halt the inevitable, carrying their human beloveds away to palaces of ice in the emerald mountains of Qaf, but even surrounded by magic, the children of dust grew old and returned to the clay that once gave them life.

Witness to the grief of his kin, Changmin drew back from his own explorations and contented himself with watching humans rather than interacting with them. Leaving the cities behind, he lingered outside nomad encampments, careful to keep away from the fires built as protection against his kind. He flew ahead of sandstorms and investigated rock-cut palaces and tombs, searching for the echoes of lives long since passed and forgotten.

Once, out in the Empty Quarter, he discovered a temple to one of the old gods. Almost buried by the dunes, its doors were clad in burnished bronze and its pediment was crowned with a carving so worn by the elements that Changmin couldn’t tell what manner of deity dwelt within.

Darkness seeped from the half-open doors. Shadows crawled and beckoned. But Changmin was a child of smokeless fire and he did not fear shadows. Inside the temple the air was dry and cool, but with the lingering, distant stink of blood. Strange markings danced upon the walls: a language he did not know and bas-reliefs depicting acts of violence he did not care to study.

Changmin flitted through the hall of columns and stopped before the altar. Upon it was a libation bowl as wide as a man is tall, with spouts in its base and faded splashes of red washed around its interior. Bones bleached dry and white with age lay gathered inside the basin. Human bones, Changmin realised; the bones of children, their tiny skulls cleaved open and their helpless limbs torn apart.

Above the libation bowl stood a statue of the god. He had the body of a man, powerful and strong; a pair of wings outstretched and curling upwards; and the head of a vulture. His beak was long, viciously curved, and decorated with gold leaf. His eyes glimmered, black and deep and endless.

“Nasr,” Changmin said, recognising the god he had found.

A presence drifted through the temple like a curl of cold air. The god stirred.

Ginnaya, the god said, his voice like the rustling spill of sand on sand. It is long since man has stood in my house, but longer still since one of your kind came to me. Tell me what brings you here, little ginnaya. Make sacrifice and I will be bountiful.

“Nothing brings me here,” Changmin said truthfully, “save curiosity.”

Ah, curiosity. Perhaps I should cure you of it. All ginnayê suffer from it.

“As do the gods.” Changmin wondered at his daring to speak to a god, even one of the Old Ones, in such a way. “Why else did you wake from your slumber and address me, if not because of curiosity?”

You trespass in my house, ginnaya. Give thanks that I possess curiosity, for otherwise I would pull down the roof and bury us both in sand, and you would learn what it is to cross a god.

A chill slid down Changmin’s back, not so much at the threat but at the way it was delivered, flat and unemotional. After millennia of abandonment by those who had once worshipped him, Nasr had nothing more to lose.

But perhaps he still had something to gain.

Disquieted, Changmin curled over a fallen column and edged away from the altar. The gleaming black eyes of the statue seemed to watch him.

Do not leave yet, little ginnaya. Come, whisper your prayer and make sacrifice, and I will grant it.

“I am djinn. I already have everything I need.” The sunlight reached through the doors with long fingers, scratching into the gloom. Changmin moved towards the warmth, intent on leaving this place of ancient shadows. “It is I who grant wishes to the children of dust.”

Wishes are not prayers. Nasr’s voice rumbled, making the sand shift. Remember that, ginnaya.

Bewildered and a little afraid, Changmin darted out into the sunlight.

Behind him, the bronze doors slammed shut.

*

One year later by human reckoning, Changmin was caught.

The whole thing would have been laughable had it not been so frustrating. He wasn’t lured by a pretty face or trapped by binding-words or snared by any of the other forms of enchantment the children of dust habitually use to try to capture djinn. Instead it was an accident.

After the encounter with Nasr, Changmin turned his back on the deserts and spent some time amongst the ancient tombs and sunlit travertines of Sacred City. When a group of ragged, stinking ghuls wandered in and jumbled through the bones of the dead in search of fresher meat, humans from a nearby village summoned a sorcerer. Though the ghuls were too foolish to recognise the danger, Changmin knew it was time for him to move on. He left on a southerly breeze while a pack of dogs tore the ghuls apart and the men hurled the bloody remnants onto a fire.

The breeze took him to the City of Brazen Serpents. Standing astride two continents, its many facets glittered in the sun—fresh water pouring through the aqueduct, precious spices of all colours sold in the markets, mosaics and icons and the echoes of prayer swirling into domed roofs, the huge chain fastened across the harbour, a babble of languages gathered from across the world, every example of humanity piled within the great walls and guarded by high towers.

Captivated by what he saw, Changmin circled the city. To the east, outside the walls, he found the shattered remains of a nobleman’s residence. He stretched out on the sun-warmed stone of the broken roof and drowsed as he watched the scurrying of men below him. They were soldiers practising their drill, training with swords and spears, heaving battering rams and other siege equipment around the open courtyard. Their skin gleamed, sweat cutting through the dust, and Changmin sighed as desire slid through him. Just as he was wondering if he should make the acquaintance of one or more of the soldiers, the air around him erupted in flames.

It was not the kind of fire made by desert nomads for protection, nor the kind of fire a maidservant lays in the hearth for warmth. This fire was different. It exploded on contact, smothering him in a foul-smelling black resin, and flames burned over him, blue and white and cresting gold. Shock threw him in search of a breeze, but then came a biting, searing pain as the flames belched smoke.

Changmin crashed to the ground and rolled over and over, trying to shake free of the fire. His hair burned. His eyelashes burned. Every inch of his skin was consumed, licked by the flames, and grey smoke staggered and funnelled above him.

The soldiers ran to him, exclaiming. Where had he come from? How could a man just fall from the sky? Was he dead? Had the poor marksmanship of one of the catapult handlers caused the death of an angel?

Changmin lay on his back and listened to the roil of questions. It was better than listening to the slow crackle of his flesh as it healed. By the time a doctor arrived, his skin no longer peeled from him in blackened strips and his hair was growing back.

“An angel,” the soldiers said, retreating in fear. “See, he is an angel. We struck an angel with liquid fire and now God will be angry!”

“Not an angel,” the doctor said, crouching beside Changmin and poking at him, first with instruments of bronze, then of copper, and finally of iron.

Too weakened to fight or flee, Changmin complained at the bronze and copper, but spat and hissed and struggled at the touch of the iron. It hurt almost as much as the fire, but where the smoke-bearing flames had lashed over him with the flaying power of a sandstorm, the iron was heavy, encumbering, dragging at him as if it would drown him on the earth.

“Not an angel at all.” The doctor jabbed the iron instrument into Changmin’s newly-healed skin and watched him thrash around. “Something quite different. Quick, fetch iron manacles and a chest bound with iron. This creature needs to be contained before it can recover and kill us all.”

Several of the soldiers ran to do the doctor’s bidding, but one, a lieutenant, remained behind, staring at Changmin wide-eyed. “What is it, if not an angel?” the lieutenant asked. “Some kind of demon? I thought demons were vile, ugly things. This... this is beautiful.”

The doctor heaped scorn upon the lieutenant’s ignorance. “The most beautiful things are often the most deadly. See how it tries to attack me!” He stepped back as Changmin reached out in appeal, then darted forwards again and stabbed another iron implement through Changmin’s beseeching hand, pinning it to the ground.

“You’re hurting it,” the lieutenant said. “Don’t do that.”

“By hurting it I am saving your life as well as my own and those of all the inhabitants of the city,” the doctor boasted. “This miserable thing is a creature from the very limits of the Empire. It is barbarous, consorting with snakes and wolves and other beasts, and it molests the dead in their tombs.”

“How horrible!” The lieutenant stared at Changmin with mingled revulsion and admiration. “Do these things have a name?”

The doctor nodded, flaunting his knowledge. “They are called the djinn,” he said, “and they are an abomination.”

Despite the doctor’s scathing tones, his eyes gleamed. Changmin realised the doctor was aware of djinn lore. No doubt he intended to complete Changmin’s capture with binding spells as well as iron, and then he would force Changmin to his will.

Though the iron instruments slicing his flesh hurt, though he possessed nothing close to his full strength, Changmin could still call upon some magic. He would not be made a slave. He would never bow to the doctor. With a shriek of rage, he drew upon the blustering violence of the north wind. Lightning cracked from the sky and struck the roof. The masonry splintered, sheared away, and came crashing down.

The lieutenant yelled. The doctor tried to flee, but was crushed by the stone. His head exploded like an over-ripe fruit; his blood soaked into the pale earth.

Exhausted by the effort, Changmin lay still. He didn’t move even when the lieutenant crept back and looked down at him.

“It’s true,” the lieutenant whispered. “You are a monster.”

When the soldiers returned, they cried aloud in horror at the evil Changmin had wrought. The inheritor of half truths and fear, the lieutenant ordered the men to clasp the iron manacles about Changmin’s wrists and then to throw him into the box they’d found.

“It fears only iron,” he declared, the blood and brains of the doctor still upon him. “Let it dwell within that chest for an eternity, so it may cause no more harm.”

The soldiers muttered amongst themselves. One suggested that they throw the chest into the sea. Another wondered if Changmin could be ransomed back to his own kind. A third declared that a creature with the power to control the weather might make a useful weapon.

A long silence fell. Changmin could hear them breathing. He could almost hear their greedy thoughts. He curled up tighter within his prison, the iron manacles chafing his wrists, the heaviness of the metal’s grasp muddling his wits.

Finally the lieutenant spoke. “We should take this thing to the Emperor,” he said. “He is wise. He will know what to do with it. And he will reward us for the great gift that we bring him.”

*

The soldiers had taken the chest from a church. Until recently it had held records of property deeds, marriages, and births. Such precious documents were kept safe within a box made entirely of iron, banded with iron, and locked with iron. Mercifully, the interior was lined with a double thickness of leather, and though the iron pressed upon Changmin from all sides, he was shielded from the worst of its debilitating power.

The manacles around his wrists sapped what little energy he had, and he lay still within his prison, listening to the soldiers curse as they loaded him onto a cart and set off for the imperial palace. His thoughts gathered and scattered like clouds. Perhaps the Emperor would release him. It seemed as if few inhabitants of this city knew of the djinn, and perhaps if he found favour with the Emperor, he could be free without suffering even a single day of slavery.

Instead of going to the old palace, the lieutenant led the cart to the Seventh Hill, where the Emperor was building a new, more splendid residence. The hammering of iron on stone made Changmin’s head ache. He focused on the shouts of the foremen, the creaking of winches, and the delicate slide of tesserae into cement. The smell of wet concrete and paint tickled at his senses beneath the stink of the iron. The chaos of construction surrounded him as the soldiers brought the box deeper within the new palace, and then the way was barred.

“Hey, horse-fuckers.” The challenge came in rough tones. “Stop right there. You’re not permitted through this gate. What’s this you’ve got with you?”

“A gift for His Serene Majesty,” the lieutenant said. “A gift of great worth! Only permit me to accompany it into the presence of His Serenity, and—”

“Lift it down.” The rough voice again. “Put it there. You, horse-fucker, you know the rules. Petitioners go through the chamberlain’s office.”

The lieutenant’s tone turned shrill. “I do not seek to petition the Emperor! This is a gift, a worthy gift...”

“Of course it is.” A grunt, and the box was lifted from the cart and set on the ground. “Be off with you. Make petition properly, and your box will be presented in due course.”

“But...” the lieutenant complained.

“Begone, horse-fuckers.” The sound of steel unsheathed, two swords of finest temper, and then the lieutenant and his men retreated, muttering and cursing their misfortune to encounter the imperial bodyguard.

Changmin rolled over in the confines of the box and gazed up.

“Well now,” said the rough-voiced man to his companion. “Let’s see what this is.” The locks screeched as they were worked free and then the lid lifted, and a giant warrior—fair-skinned, blond, with eyes the colour of a squall—stared down at Changmin in surprise. “A boy. A naked boy in a box.”

Even though the iron dragged at him, Changmin managed to lift his bound hands. “Release me.”

The giant laughed, but not unkindly. To his companion he said, “I don’t know what those steppes barbarians think they’ll gain from such a gift. This is not the way to petition His Serenity the Emperor. Besides, boys are not to his taste.”

His companion, an equally huge man with red hair, peered in at Changmin. “He’s pretty. Perhaps those idiot horse-fuckers intended the boy to be made a eunuch?”

The blond giant snorted. “He’s too old. Here, boy,” he crouched beside the box, “I’m going to close the lid, but it won’t be locked. Wait until nightfall, then make your way out of here.”

“But...” Changmin held up his hands.

“Bless you, boy, if you can’t escape a building site in manacles then you don’t deserve your freedom.” The giant took off his cloak and draped it over Changmin’s body. “If it’s nakedness that worries you, take this. Go through the Gate of Lakes. There’s a monastery close by the walls; the brothers there will help you. But first you must help yourself.”

The lid closed once more, and although the giant was as good as his word and didn’t lock the chest, Changmin could not get out. Not while he was wrapped all around with iron.

*

The box was forgotten, moved first by the builders and then by slaves at the bidding of an under-secretary, who cast a single glance at the exterior of the iron chest and decided it contained documents of no great importance. “Lock it,” the under-secretary ordered, and the bolts scraped home.

Changmin remained silent, wilted by contact with the iron. All he could do was listen as the chest was placed in a storeroom amongst dozens of other caskets and trunks and boxes.

The Emperor died, poisoned by his favourite concubine so her son could rule in his place. Chaos reigned in the palace. Changmin drew the blond giant’s cloak around him and huddled beneath it. He wasn’t cold, but the woollen cloak gave him some small measure of comfort. A history of scent was woven through its fibres. From it, Changmin could discern the giant’s past triumphs and grievances, and for years, until the smell faded, it provided a kind of companionship.

Decades passed. The city fell, overrun first by its erstwhile allies from the West and then again by an ancient enemy. For one of the djinn, the time was but the blink of an eye; but the presence of iron made every day painful in the manner of an old wound that aches constantly, and Changmin sank deeper into torpor.

The palace on the Seventh Hill was razed to the ground, and a new one was built on the First Hill. Sculpted in layers on top of the ruins of the old acropolis, this new palace commanded the harbour and the great waterway, looking in three directions: north across the harbour to the walled residences of the foreign merchants, south to the expanse of the White Sea, and east to the second continent, Changmin’s home.

All of the imperial belongings were moved piece by piece across the city to the new palace and stored according to their value. Precious objects were placed in the Treasury; iron document boxes were placed wherever there was room.

The sheet iron of Changmin’s box was old now, stained red and twisted with jagged gashes corrupting the lid. The leather interior had all but rotted away. Though he still couldn’t get out, Changmin at least could see the world beyond the confines of his prison.

He seemed to be in another kind of prison. Bare walls punctured by a series of small windows set close to the ceiling, a ragtag collection of furniture and haphazard piles of boxes, dust gathering in corners—it was a place not even the rats deigned to visit.

Changmin resigned himself to greater patience.

In the winter, the rain found its way through the ceiling and dripped onto the iron box. Within a few days the corrosion had spread. Flakes of rust drifted inside onto Changmin’s face, the delicate touch of the rotting iron suddenly more painful than the slow slide of oblivion that had kept him prisoner for so long.

Summoning his faded strength, he kicked and punched at the lid of the box. Frustration lent rage to his voice. The rusting iron broke open a little wider, but he was too weak to break it completely.

Helpless, Changmin lay within the box, the rain on his face like furious tears.

*

With the first breath of spring came a whirlwind of activity within the palace. Changmin’s long, drowsing peace was shattered when a company of imperial guards escorted a young man into the prison.

“By command of His Serenity the Emperor, you are stripped of your rank and placed here for your own safety,” the captain of the guard intoned, not looking at the prisoner. “You will reside here in the comfort due to your birth, but without the luxuries that tempted you. Once a month, you may petition His Serenity to grant you lenience. Food and other necessaries will be delivered to you. All other rights are denied at this time.”

Changmin rolled over within the iron box and peeped through one of the holes torn in the side. The guards stood in the antechamber, the doors wide open behind them. Outside was a small courtyard with trees and a fountain. Changmin stared at the sight, greedy for it. He hadn’t seen full sunlight in centuries, and now it almost dazzled him. Putting his fingers to the hole in the box, he pressed closer, yearning for the warmth of the sun. The rusting iron burned his fingertips, but he didn’t care.

The young man stepped into the beam of sunlight. Changmin blinked and focused on him. For all the sharp delicacy of his features, the young man possessed poise and strength of will. Though pale with fear, he was determined not to show it. He kept his head up, an air of command still clinging to him despite the disorder of his garments. He lacked a cloak and a robe and wore only a long under-tunic and loose trousers of white silk, hemmed with gold thread.

“You have done your duty,” he said. “You may go.”

The guards turned about and left. It was a victory of sorts, but a hollow one, for the young man’s bravado wavered as soon as the soldiers were outside.

The captain lingered for a moment on the threshold, dipping his head in an approximation of a bow. “I’m sorry, Your Highness.”

The young man laughed, sadness cracking through it. “That is my title no longer. Now I am just Yunho.”

“My lord, your father will see reason. Have patience.” The captain clasped Yunho’s arm and then turned away. The doors slammed shut. A bolt was thrown; chains rattled, and locks bit tight.

Yunho stood for a moment staring at the door, then curled his hands into fists and exhaled a shaking breath. A moment later he exploded into action. Grabbing the nearest objects—a gilded chair with delicate legs, a blue-and-white patterned vase, a timepiece that didn’t work—he threw them at the walls and at the door. The chair legs splintered. The vase shattered. The timepiece broke, spilling its mechanical guts across the floor.

“God.” The word snapped out, both a plea and a curse. “Oh, God.” Yunho sank to his knees and covered his face with his hands. A sob of anger and frustration burst from him, and he snarled at his own weakness.

Changmin sighed, feeling a touch of sympathy for the young man’s plight.

After a moment, Yunho recovered himself. He rose to his feet, expression grimly determined as he looked around his prison, and he began to explore. At first he tried the doors, then he prowled about, investigating the detritus of centuries. He moved to the far side of the antechamber, out of Changmin’s line of vision. There came the sound of another door opening, then closing. Then came the creak of wood, and Changmin realised that this prison was bigger than he’d imagined. Two rooms downstairs, and perhaps space within the roof. He listened, and heard Yunho’s footsteps trace over part of the ceiling above him.

Changmin scrawled around in the box, a strange kind of nervousness thrumming through his body. He moved to the biggest of the holes ripped through the lid and looked out, anxiously awaiting Yunho’s reappearance.

Footsteps pattered across the roof. Again came the creak of wood—a ladder, Changmin guessed—and then Yunho rounded the corner of the antechamber, brushing a hand through his hair. Cobwebs clung to his silks; dust smudged his hands and across his cheek. He looked calm now, emotions held in check.

Changmin scrunched down as Yunho came into the room and began sorting through the stacks of long-forgotten furniture. With discovery almost certain, and with it the hope of freedom, Changmin found himself unexpectedly mourning the loss of his long solitude. Even so, he couldn’t stop himself from staring up through the jagged holes in the lid.

Paper shuffled. Other boxes were thrown open and the contents examined. The soft thud of textiles pulled free and unfolded, silks and velvets and furs, some ravaged by moths, others as whole and perfect as when they were wrapped and put away. Yunho sneezed at the dust dancing through the air, then came over to the iron box. He reached for the locks, and as he worked the bolts that screeched in protest, he gave a casual glance through the hole in the lid.

He wasn’t expecting to see anything except perhaps a heap of documents. Certainly he wasn’t expecting to see Changmin curled up inside. The eye is faster than the brain; Yunho looked away, still working at the locks, and then the reality of what he’d seen overtook the distraction of his situation. Changmin saw it in him, saw Yunho’s expression change from stoic indifference to disbelief.

Yunho exclaimed and jerked back from the box just as he’d pulled loose the first of the bolts. He took two steps away, then came forwards again and dropped to his knees. Pressing himself to the lid, he stared through the corroded metal.

“Who are you? Why are you... Wait. Let me help you out of there.” Fingers fumbling with haste, he yanked at the second bolt. Before he could open the third, he stopped and looked in at Changmin again, concern wrinkling his brow. “Are you an assassin?”

Changmin laughed. It was the first time he’d laughed in decades. The sound was as rusty as his iron prison. “My name is Changmin, and a poor assassin I would make, allowing myself to be caught so easily.”

Yunho peered at him, uncertain. “Yet perhaps that is part of your trickery, so I will trust you. If I let you out, you might kill me.”

“I won’t kill you.” Freedom was so close, Changmin could smell it. Instead of smothering, deadening iron, it had the scent of human skin and dust and the warming fragrance of cloves and frankincense. He poked his fingers through the jagged hole in the iron, ignoring the scratches of pain. “If you free me, I will serve you.”

“I cannot have servants now. It is forbidden. My father’s orders.” Yunho looked doubtful, but didn’t move away.

“No one need know of my existence save you.” Taking a deep breath, Changmin shoved his hand as far as it would go through the corroding lid. Agony rode through him as the ragged edges cut into his flesh, the rust infecting him. Forcing the pain from his voice, Changmin said, “Please. Free me, and I will obey you. It is the way of my kind. An inviolable duty. Free me, and I am yours.”

Yunho stared at Changmin’s hand and wrist, at the deep gouges through the flesh that wept not blood but a pale silvery liquid that coated the iron manacles. “You’re hurt.”

Before Changmin could reply, Yunho prised open the third bolt and lifted the lid. Changmin pulled back his arm, then realised he was free. He tried to lift himself from the box, but the manacles weighed him down and he swayed as if exhausted.

“Here. Let me help.” Yunho came close and put an arm around Changmin’s waist, steadying him. “Lean on me. Step towards me. That’s it. That’s good...”

The first touch of cold stone against his bare feet made Changmin cry out. The iron manacles clanked, the sound hideous, but just the brief contact with the earth gave Changmin a spark of energy. He tried to pull away from Yunho’s embrace, but then a violent, shuddering cramp gripped him. He clung to Yunho, jolted against him, and they both tumbled to the floor.

Yunho controlled the fall, keeping Changmin on top, protecting him from the strike of the hard stone. Changmin felt the shock of the impact, heard the whuff of air as Yunho’s breath left his lungs, and then they lay together, holding onto one another.

Changmin lifted his head and looked at Yunho through the long, feathered sweep of his hair. “Thank you.”

Yunho smiled, fine dark brows lifting. He relaxed his grip on Changmin’s arms, gentling the touch, but made no move to push him away. “How long were you kept in that box?”

Perhaps this conversation would be better in a less uncomfortable position, but Changmin was loath to move. He told himself it was because he feared a return of the cramp, but really it was because he enjoyed the rise and fall of Yunho’s chest beneath him and the warmth of his body through the layers of silk. Casting his mind back, Changmin answered, “I was captured as a gift for the Emperor who built the palace on the Seventh Hill.”

The smile slipped from Yunho’s face. “But that was over four hundred years ago!”

“A long time to be a prisoner.” With reluctance, Changmin pushed up onto his knees and untangled himself from Yunho. He stretched like a cat, arching his back first down, then upward, moaning in pleasure as he did so. Finally he rolled his head, working the kinks from his neck and shoulders, then sprawled on the floor enjoying the freedom to roll and reach and move his limbs.

At length he realised Yunho was staring at him. Changmin thought he understood why. He was naked; the cloak he’d been given centuries ago had crumbled to shreds the moment he’d stepped out of the box. Until he’d regained more of his strength, he couldn’t even summon enough magic to clothe himself. Smiling and unashamed, Changmin lifted one shoulder. “I apologise for my lack of attire.”

“You’re beautiful.” Yunho blushed, then dropped his gaze as if he could hide the intensity of his expression. “But here. Please take this.” He sat up and pulled off his under-tunic, then presented it to Changmin.

Now Changmin stared, his bound hands full of silk. Half naked, Yunho was magnificent, all lithe strength and muscle. Changmin drew in a breath and reined in the desire that rose in him. No matter how kind and handsome, it would not do for him to be doubly ensnared by this child of dust.

“You do not see me at my best,” Changmin said. “And I regret that while my hands are chained, I cannot wear your garment.”

“Oh!” Yunho jumped up and went to one of the other boxes. He sorted through the clothing and selected a cloak of dark blue velvet trimmed with silver fox. “Perhaps this instead,” he offered, draping it around Changmin’s shoulders. “The colour becomes you. And...” He hurried to another box and shook the creases from a pair of silken trousers. “These. So you may be decent, if not decently dressed.”

Changmin smiled as he put on the clothes. “Thank you for such consideration.”

“You are one of the djinn.” Yunho’s voice was level, but wariness and curiosity flickered in his eyes. “Your kind should always be treated with respect.” He closed the lid on the iron box with a look of distaste. “This was not respectful.”

“Neither are these.” Changmin lifted his bound wrists. “The iron has weakened me, and these chains limit my ability to heal as well as to use magic.”

Yunho took his hands and examined the manacles, prodding at the rust-frozen locks without result. “If I were free, I’d go to the imperial stables and order a blacksmith to strike these from you.”

“You would order him?” Changmin tilted his head.

The flash of bravado he’d seen before came back into Yunho’s features. “Yes. And he would obey, because I am a prince.”

“But now you’re a prisoner.”

Yunho nodded. “Because I am a prince.” Sadness took him, and then he pushed it away, bending his head once more to study the manacles. “Perhaps in time my father will permit me to have tools. A rasp or an awl or some other such thing, and I can break these from you. Does the iron hurt you so very much?”

“Less now I am out of the box.” Changmin twisted his wrists within the iron cuffs. The metal still gripped and dragged, but compared with what he’d endured these past four centuries, it was nothing. “It’s a slow pain, like water under deep ice,” he explained, seeing Yunho’s worried expression. “It’s bearable. Perhaps if I were to regain my strength, it would hurt less.”

“How?” Yunho asked. “How can an iron-bound djinni be restored to his power?”

Changmin got to his feet, swirling the cloak around him. The loose silk of his trousers flowed over his legs and gathered at the ankles. He paced across the room and stood in one of the squares of sunlight admitted by the small window. “There are several methods,” he said. “Contact with fresh water. Basking in the sunlight. Creeping under a frost. Being buffeted by the winds. Spending time in the wilderness. But the quickest way is by feeding on dreams.”

“Dreams,” Yunho echoed, his voice curiously flat. He busied himself pulling his under-tunic back on, then he stood in another patch of sunlight and looked at Changmin. “How does that work?”

“It is simple enough.” Changmin turned so the sun stroked the back of his neck. “I sleep beside you and take your dreams. Over time, they will provide enough sustenance for me to recover.”

“You don’t need to eat or drink?” The question hung between them before Yunho seemed to realise how foolish it was. He reddened, glancing at the iron box. “I’m sorry.”

Changmin shrugged. “I can eat and drink. I enjoy it. But it’s not necessary for my survival. Dreams, however... Dreams are realities without form, like the smokeless fire from which all djinn come and to which we return.”

Yunho frowned. “You’re not immortal?”

“No. But we live for a very long time.” Changmin smiled and moved into the shadows, stepping around the piles of yellowed parchment and the rugs of knotted silk. “Even without your dreams I can survive. But I will be weak and unable to serve you.”

Another of those delicious, confused blushes rose to Yunho’s face. “You need not serve me.”

“You must know the stories about my kind. Free a djinni and he or she is honour-bound to grant your every wish.”

“I freed you from the box,” Yunho said, his smile slight but amused, “and yet you are still bound by iron. It seems you cannot serve me until I free you completely.”

Changmin came closer, drawn by scent and sunlight and desire. “You are wrong. There are still services I may render.”

“In exchange for my dreams.” Again came the momentary confusion, and Yunho turned away, lashes veiling his eyes and his breathing soft and rapid until he regained control. He looked at Changmin. “I insist upon this. My dreams for your companionship. It must be mutual. We will be equals.”

“You will lose your dreams,” Changmin said. “Think upon it before you agree. When you wake each morning, you will remember nothing.”

“But you will remember.” Yunho’s gaze intensified. “You can tell me what I dreamt.”

He turned, then; turned and strode out into the antechamber and placed both hands on the locked doors of the prison, tension evident in every line of his body. For a moment he remained still and silent, and then he swung around, his expression remote and cold.

“My father sets great store by dreams. He places such importance on their messages that he seeks them out, goes to bed each night dosed with tisanes and concoctions to stimulate his mind. He has pillows stuffed with lavender and a choir of eunuchs to sing him to rest. When he wakes each morning, he demands the services of his dream interpreter.”

Yunho’s mouth twisted. His voice flattened. “The dream interpreter holds great power. Too great, many say. To interpret dreams is one thing; to use them as a means of manipulating imperial policy is another. I spoke against the interpreter. This past month, my father’s dreams have become more violent and troublesome. He has not slept well in weeks, and his health suffers for it. The dream interpreter told him the meaning of his visions. ‘The Prince seeks to overthrow you,’ he said. ‘The Prince means to kill you and take the throne, and then he will plunge the Empire into war.’”

Changmin nodded. Over the years in his iron prison he’d heard other charlatans take advantage of emperors weak-willed, afraid, or simply too lonely to bear the burden of office. It never ended well, not for the emperor or for the unfortunate family members exiled, imprisoned, or executed as a result of the deceits of dream interpreters, sorcerers, concubines or generals.

“So you see,” Yunho said, spreading his hands, “I have been imprisoned because of dreams. Therefore I have no use for them, and you may take mine and use them as you wish.”

“They can bring great wisdom,” Changmin said softly.

“I don’t want them.” Yunho came back into the room and stood before him, holding Changmin’s gaze. “You will be my wisdom instead. If it comes to pass and I become emperor, I will need an advisor. You will have my dreams. You will know what is right.”

Changmin stared. “You are certain about this? It cannot be undone.”

“I’m certain.” Yunho nodded. “Take my dreams.”

*

They made themselves comfortable within the prison, sorting through the cast-off furniture and arranging it to their liking. Together they created a home, one so unlike the suite of rooms Yunho used to occupy elsewhere within the palace that he claimed he was more comfortable here in genteel squalor than he’d been there amongst gilded splendour.

Yunho’s meals were brought from the kitchens by silent servants accompanied by guards. Each dish was tasted by one of the servants before they presented it.

“It seems my father is not yet ready to sentence me to death,” Yunho said one day, his tone jovial even though his smile creased with sorrow.

“Be of good cheer, Your Highness,” the taster whispered as he handed over the next plate. “You are not forgotten.”

The guards turned their backs and talked loudly amongst themselves.

Over the next few days, the smallest of luxuries began to appear, smuggled in by the servants with the food. Tinder and the stubs of candles. Slim volumes of poetry and prose. Pen and ink and folded sheets of parchment. A timepiece that needed constant winding, yet still managed to keep inaccurate hours.

Changmin remained in the shadows, hidden. He watched the studied indifference of the guards and the affection of the servants, and realised in how much regard these people held Yunho. He listened to the murmurs of the palace beyond their prison and heard whispers of plots, some against the dream interpreter, some against the Emperor, but all aimed to free Yunho and raise him up on high once more.

When they were alone, Changmin liked to spend his time in the small bathroom to one side of the antechamber. He sprawled beneath the water spilling out of the copper pipes, luxuriating in the clean, cold flow brought into the palace through the great aqueduct. Heedless of the antique silks and furs Yunho dressed him in, Changmin splashed in the water and sang half-remembered songs of the east.

Within moments Yunho would open the door and gaze at him, and Changmin would smile, delighting in the image he knew he presented—wet hair, wet silk, wet skin. Though the iron manacles spoilt the perfection of the image, Changmin could see desire in Yunho’s eyes, in the tightening of his body, and every day it burned fiercer and brighter.

As Changmin regained his strength, he could conjure some small scraps of magic despite the iron that still bound him. By encouraging heat through the copper pipes, he was able to present Yunho with a warm bath. He slipped through the windows or beneath the door, and took to draping himself around the fountain in the courtyard outside, letting the water cascade over him, or he lay stretched out on the roof of the prison and sunned himself in the afternoon light. He brought Yunho flowers from the garden and fruit from the trees, and later he stole other titbits from elsewhere in the palace—sugared almonds and ice-cold sherbets and whatever else he could lay his hands upon.

The iron manacles prevented him from straying too far, and his djinn-oath to serve Yunho meant he couldn’t be away from his new master for long, but still Changmin managed to explore much of the palace. The armouries he avoided, and the stables and the barracks, but he investigated the kitchens, drifting in through the windows and hiding amongst the droplets of steam. He visited the bathhouses and crept through the harem and listened to the birth of rumour and the hatching of plots, and finally he flitted inside the Emperor’s pavilion high up on a terrace of dazzling white marble.

Keeping to the shadows, Changmin gazed upon His Serenity, Yunho’s father, who looked across the great waterway at the eastern shore and sighed. The Emperor’s agitation was obvious; anxiety creased his brow and he worried constantly at a row of jade beads. Reports were stacked high upon a gilded table beside him. When Changmin slid closer, the whisper of his passing like the stirring of the gentlest breeze, he saw that the reports all concerned the onset of war: isolated uprisings in the east growing and spreading, towns and cities uniting beneath the banner of a nobleman with a distant claim to the throne.

Before Changmin could examine the documents further, a servant entered the pavilion with refreshments for the Emperor—a silver goblet heaped with rose-water sherbet, a selection of candied fruits, and a jug of cordial made with citron. Changmin hissed at the sharp acid tang of the citron and whisked away, shuddering in distaste. The documents tumbled in his wake, scattering across the marble terrace.

He wondered if he should tell Yunho of his findings. The guards and servants who brought Yunho’s food spoke only of palace news, and even then they spoke obliquely in words that, if overheard, would seem to mean little.

Whenever Changmin returned from his peregrinations, Yunho would ask him to describe where he’d been, what he’d seen, but never did they speak of politics. After careful consideration, Changmin decided to stay silent on the subject of war.

But war preoccupied Yunho’s dreams.

Changmin’s favourite time of day was after evening prayers, when Yunho took one of the candle stubs and lit their way to bed. In the roof space they’d made a nest of heaped tapestries and furs, laid over with linen and blanketed with wool and velvet. The sheets were scented not with costly perfumes but with common lye soap, and though the fragrance of frankincense and cloves had long since faded from Yunho’s skin, he still smelled warm and musky and pleasing. Changmin filled his head with Yunho’s scent and nestled close as he descended through the layers of reality in search of dreams.

It wasn’t hard to extract Yunho’s dreams. Changmin had permission, which made it easier, but rather than take them at their nascence when they were fresh and unshaped, he let them grow and unfold, and he watched the spill and scrawl of thoughts. Yunho’s deepest fears, his greatest desires, his sweetest memories—all laid out, open and bare for Changmin’s delectation. Over the course of their nights together, Changmin gathered every single dream, picking up threads and chasing them through tangles of illusion until he could weave them together, and then he swallowed them down and grew sleek and strong upon them.

Dreams of battle were uppermost. One in particular recurred for several weeks. In it, Changmin wandered through a landscape both familiar and strange, and he watched the soldiers of two armies strike and hack and destroy one another. The sun was low, blood-red in the sky, and a sandstorm hung motionless on the horizon like a pillar of fire. A ruined town lay behind the battlefield, and Yunho—silver-clad, the pennant of the imperial house streaming behind him—fought like one of the demon-possessed until he was cut down. Sometimes the enemy fired arrows into him; at other times he was speared, and still other times he was slain with an axe or a sword. No matter what weapon was used, the outcome was the same: Yunho died.

Changmin woke from these dreams with a start, his skin drenched cold with fear. He would puff a flame to the candle-stub and sort through the vestiges of the dream in search of the truth. The children of dust sometimes dreamt prophecies; if it was Yunho’s fate to die in battle, Changmin vowed to change it.

Other dreams were more pleasurable. The visions of war faded, replaced by deep, sensual dreams of touch and taste and sensation like the unravelling of silk against skin. They were dreams of sunlight and water, and Changmin saw himself and Yunho together, kissing for long, joyful moments, making love with tender passion, fucking with primitive, wild abandon.

Changmin enjoyed these dreams shamelessly, for though he and Yunho lay together every night, their embraces were yet innocent. When the dreams came, Changmin would withdraw very slightly from Yunho’s mind and watch him twice over—once within the dream as they consumed one another with the flame of their desire, and again in the reality where Yunho slept beside him, his skin flushed and his breathing rapid as he moved restlessly within their bed.

Every morning over breakfast, Yunho asked Changmin what he’d dreamt. Every morning, Changmin told half truths. He shared the details of dreams that seemed harmless, childhood memories wrapped through with the day’s residues, but he didn’t tell Yunho about the dreams of battle, nor did he share the dark, shining erotic dreams.

But perhaps Yunho knew somehow, for one day, before they’d even stirred from bed, he asked, “What did I dream last night?”

“You dreamt of water,” Changmin said, putting distance between them. “You dreamt of the White Sea and fishermen in a blue boat in the lee of the island of the Kabeiroi. They had come to worship the sea, and they threw precious golden objects into the waves.”

For a long time, Yunho was silent. When he looked up at Changmin, his gaze was clear and open. “I dream of you, don’t I?”

This time, Changmin couldn’t lie. “Yes.”

A smile both pleased and satisfied warmed Yunho’s mouth. “What do I do, in my dreams?”

Changmin hesitated, then said, “You kiss me.”

Yunho drew in a breath. “Does it please you?”

“It is only a dream.” Changmin lifted a shoulder as if to shrug off the knowledge of their shared longing.

“You said once that dreams were formless reality,” Yunho said, moving closer. “What if we could give them shape? Would the dream become real?”

“Yes,” Changmin said again. “It would.”

Yunho touched Changmin’s face. Wonder shone in his eyes, a joyous hope, but it was tempered with caution. “You said dreams could bring wisdom. Is this wise? Or is it forbidden for me to love you?”

Changmin placed his hand over Yunho’s, holding onto the caress. “Everything is possible if you want it enough.”

Desire, intense and rich, sharpened Yunho’s expression. “I want you.”

“Then take me.”

They kissed, mutual and hungry, and Changmin burned. Yunho drew him closer, cupping Changmin’s face with both hands, and kissed him again, over and over, as sweet as the summer rain.

“This is not service,” Yunho whispered, rolling Changmin beneath him.

“No,” Changmin said. “But you are still my master.”

*


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