Love in the Time of the Serpent King

by RJ Astruc

I am four, maybe five, when the deev first visits me.

I’m sitting behind our house, drawing pictures in the sand with a stick. Save for the neighbour’s chickens, I am completely alone. My mother is at the market with my sisters; my father and brothers are soldiers and have not been home for many months. As the youngest son of eight, I am used to entertaining myself. The chickens, a dozen scraggy, mad-eyed things, cluck and peck around me, occasionally walking through my pictures. I lean forwards to shoo them away, and when I look up, there is a woman standing over me.

She is naked save for a necklace of green stones around her neck. Her skin is the colour of ochre and her body casts no shadow across the ground. Ridges of bone protrude from her ribs and back like the spines of a dragon. Her hair is as long my mother’s and shimmers like gold when the light touches it. But it’s her eyes that I like best. Her iris are black, ringed within and without by a thin line of orange.

She is the strangest thing I have ever seen, and I think she is beautiful. I bow my head, as my mother has taught me to, and introduce myself.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad.”

The woman smiles, a thin, tense smile, as if she’s not certain what to do with me. It is not a friendly smile—her teeth are needle-thin and jagged like the dried piranha-fish the Nubians sell. “I am Jahazan Deev,” she says, “and there is a new war coming, child.”

I frown. I am only four, maybe five, and the word war lacks context for me. I know my father and brothers fight in it, and that people are killed in it, and that soldiers go to it, and that it can eat cities and devour men, women and children alike. But then, so does the desert, and I have no fear of sand. “Where is it coming from?” I ask.

“The deev have fought against the peri for many years. That is the old war, of old grudges long forgotten. But this new war is that of your kind, your mortal ilk. You have brought it to us. You have brought us to this.”

“Can’t we take it away again?”

She is about to reply but a rumbling thunder-sound interrupts her, and the sand between my fingers stirs. In the distance I hear shouts, growing louder, and foreign, guttural noises like the roaring of a wild animal. I get to my feet and move to turn my head, but Jahazan catches my chin and forces me too look at her, into her strange black-and-orange eyes.

“Come walk with me, Rahaeb Reyad,” she says.

“But I—”

“Don’t turn around.” She takes my hand and entwines our fingers. Her smile is encouraging and perhaps genuine. I smell dust and fire and sulphur and blood; I hear the sound of stone cracking and a woman’s shrill scream. The sand around us jumps and shifts as the earth itself pulses with what I know now is war. I think of my mother and my sisters; I don’t want to turn around. Jahazan kisses my forehead. “Let’s go,” she whispers.

She leads me from my village. I hold her hand as tight as I can, until it hurts so much I have to cry.

I am fourteen, maybe fifteen, when the devil-deev Ahriman curses King Zohak with two black serpents that sprout from his shoulders.

They are huge venomous beasts that crave only the flesh of mortal men. Every time they are cut down they grow back instantly, and no doctor or witch or holy man in New Persia can cure the King of them. So King Zohak—now known as the Serpent-King—decrees that every day he will feed his snakes two of his own subjects to sate their hunger.

When the soldiers come to take me to the palace I am not surprised. I’m a pauper, an orphan; I am a lost thing in the world. I barely remember my old village, my dead mother and sisters, my father and brothers lost in the war against the deev. No one will lament my death; no one will notice my disappearance. At fourteen, maybe fifteen, I’m both realistic and apathetic. I let them chain me in a cell to await the serpents’ whim.

It is dark there, beneath the palace, and as cool as a desert night. I am not alone in the cell. There are other men, perhaps a dozen of them, all equally poor, all equally lost. They talk in whispers to each other about their lives, their hopes, and their hatred for the Serpent-King, Ahriman’s mortal puppet, a man who killed his father and may yet live to kill New Persia itself, the land once called the kingdom of light.

It is small wonder that the peri, the fair fairy-kind, have turned their backs on us.

When night falls the men sleep huddled together for warmth. I sit apart, staring at the ceiling, remembering the moon. If it weren’t for Zohak and his serpent curse, I would be going to war in a few years, the mark of New Persia emblazoned on my shield. I’m a poor swordsman, clumsy and inelegant when I play with other boys; I suspect I would be an early casualty on the battlefield. But none of that matters now. I cover my face with my hands, and when I rub my eyes, Jahazan Deev is there.

This time she has come in the form of a giant black dog with great leathery wings like a bat. Silver tusks extend from her cheeks and a ridge of horn protrudes from her brow. Her fur is sleek and gleams blue in the dim lantern light of the cell, as bright as the armoury of the peri. But I know her instantly by her black-and-orange eyes, which gaze at me with an urgency.

“Jahazan Deev,” I whisper.

“Rahaeb Reyad.”

“This time the deev brought the war to us,” I say, going to her. “This is Ahriman’s work.”

“You mistake a battle for a war,” the deev replies, “and mortal corruption for deev trickery. In this war we are now allies beneath Zohak.”

“I’m not a child any more. I know the deev have no allies—only puppets.” I touch her fur and find black scales beneath it, like those of the Serpent-King’s snakes. “Why are you doing this?” I ask.

She lays her tusked head on the ground and I climb onto her back, curling my fingers around the horns of bone that jutt from her ribs. My doomed cell-mates do not stir. The deev spreads her great wings and around us the cell walls and ceiling melt away. Above us I see a hole in the palace roof and through it stars.

“Come with me, Rahaeb Reyad,” says Jahazan, “and don’t look back.”

We fly out of the prison cell and sail through the night-sky. I cling to the deev’s back and close my eyes.

When I am twenty-five, maybe twenty-six, I go to war.

I wear the mark of New Persia and the rough, dark clothes of a soldier, and I walk with my company across the desert. Under the rule of the Serpent-King, we do not hunt the deev, as my father and brothers did. The deev are the Serpent-King’s new councillors, their evil suggestions his law. Instead we seek out those who would oppose Zohak, who would challenge the wickedness he has brought to New Persia. We bring insurgents to justice; we halt rebellions. Our new war is against ourselves.

I have become a fine swordsman. My feet are quick and light and my arms are strong. It is a long time since I have fought a man and lost. Although I am young, already the name Rahaeb Reyad is known to the people of New Persia. There are many stories told of my escape from the Serpent-King’s prison and the destruction of my childhood village. In some circles it is rumoured that I have deev magic about me. Perhaps they are right, and a lingering trace of Jahazan remains on my skin like perfume, protecting me from harm.

One day my company and I destroy a village in Ramadar. We have been told by the Serpent-King’s men that there are rebels hiding in the village. We come down upon the place with all the might of an avenging deev. When we have killed all those who would oppose us, we set fire to their houses and let their animals loose into the desert.

At the back of a burnt out house I find a woman with a small child in her arms, her face creased with fear. It is my duty to kill them both, to erase all witnesses of the Serpent-King’s treachery. But I find I cannot do it. The scene reminds me too much of the day twenty, maybe twenty-one, years ago, when the deev Jahazan saved my life.

“I am Rehaeb Reyad,” I say, sheathing my sword. “You should go.”

The mother scoops up the child in her arms and runs away into the desert, her feet making little impression on the shifting sands. I fall to my knees and hold my shoulders, bracing myself for tears of mourning that never come. Night falls and my company, failing to find me amongst the village’s wreckage, numbers me amongst the dead. They leave Ramadar without me.

When I wake the next morning, Jahazan is at my side.

This time she has taken the appearance of a girl, no different from any girl I ever met in New Persia, save for her strange eyes and her smile that’s neither kind nor cruel. She is not beautiful; she is not even unique, but her very presence trembles my soul. As soon as I say her name she is upon me, sitting on my chest, holding my shoulders to the earth.

“I won’t be your puppet, Jahazan Deev,” I tell her.

The deev tilts her head. “If I wanted you to be my puppet, Rahaeb Reyad, I would curse you until you had no choice, until you were as will-less and cruel as the Serpent-King. Until you had ears only for my truths, my twisted deev lies.”

I think of the rumours circulating about my past. “People call me a deev-kin, sometimes.”

“Underneath they see that you have the heart of a deev. You are the child who walked from the destruction of his village without looking back. You are the boy who escaped from prison without a thought for the man who would take his place. You are the man who has killed so many, by sword and by fire; you are a scourge of New Persia. Of course they call you a deev. You are hardly human.”

“Yesterday I spared a woman’s life.”

“We deev can be weak too, sometimes.”

“Did you do this to me?” I cry, my hand on her throat. “Did you make me like you?”

The deev laughs. “I only told you not to look. I was never your puppeteer.”

She is a deev in the skin of a girl, like I am a deev in the skin of a boy. We roll together in the sand, in the ruins of the village I helped raize.

For two months, maybe three, we are together.

We fly to the mountains of Mazandaran, where the wild deev live. There, in the caves and crevasses, we fight and feed and copulate like beasts. When the old war comes to us—the peri soldiers, with their feeble hearts filled with pity and love—we attack them mercilessly, sending them fleeing through the rocks like scared rabbits. When the new war comes to us we go down to the battle and fight, sometimes siding with the Serpent-King’s men, sometimes with the rebels.

One day we walk along the cliffs to a place where the peri sometimes come, to soothe their aches of war. It is a tranquil pool amidst the barren rocks, fringed by flowers and soft grasses, like the lush veldts the Nubians speak of. Tall trees provide a thick canopy through which the sun cannot penetrate. Fair fragrances, so sweet that they make Jahazan spit and retch, lie heavy in the air. It is a paradise.

The deev and I, we hide amongst the trees with our sharp teeth and sharp blades.

We have not been waiting long before a peri passes us, on the way to the pool. He is delicate and beautiful and bare-headed, with thick curly hair as dark as Jahazan’s eyes. At his side he carries a sword, beneath his arm a shield with the mark of light upon it. He kneels by the waterside, gathering water in his hands to splash his face.

As he bends to drink we come up behind him, and while Jahazan skewers his heart, I cut off his head with a single blow of my sword. His body tumbles forward and the water swallows it. Lilies bloom where his blood was spilt, the ends of their petals stained a deep purple.

“We killed a peri in a holy place, Rahaeb Rayed,” says Jahazan, laughing. “Now you are as damned as I.”

Perhaps she wants me to be horrified, but it’s not horror I feel but the sensation inside me of something coming apart. Of being stripped, of being broken. The smell of the peri’s blood is pungent as poison. It is the smell of holy things, of heaven and purity and the cleansing of sin. It is the smell of warmth and family and home. It smells like waking up on a new morning in a village far away, my mother singing in the kitchen, my sisters laughing as they play.

I realise that I’ve been lost for a very long time.

“We shouldn’t have done this,” I say, turning away.

“We did it so easily,” says Jahazan. “What’s the life of a fairy to us? We could do it ag—”

“No. No.”

“What is it?” But she has realised now how the peri’s blood has ruined me, has ruined the deev-thing she made of me. “You did it!” she screams, and her voice is the voice of thunder. “Why did you do it? Why are you here?”

I think: Because you can’t fight a war without having something to fight for. Because mortals don’t do it for vague, intangible notions like loyalty and patriotism but for real things, for things they can touch, like flowers in their garden, like the smile on a child’s face, like the lover they left behind. Because all battles start and finish in the heart. Because opposites attract.

There are the right answers, answers she would have stayed to hear. But what I say changes everything, irrevocably.

“Jahazan,” I whisper, “I’m in love.”

I am thirty, maybe thirty-one, when I hear of her capture.

The peri army brought her down in the desert. They came for her like an arrow seeks its target and beat her to the door of hell. When she grovelled at their feet, they bound her with chains of truth that burnt channels through her flesh. When she wept and screamed, they dragged her through the rubble of every village she helped destroy, across the grave of every man she murdered, and along the palace steps of the Serpent-King, son of their ally, now their foe. When she was exhausted, half-dead, they took her back to their court in Jinnistan and tied her there like a dog, a warning to those who would flaunt their immorality.

The peri are creatures of love and light, but it’s easy to forget that they are soldiers, too. Their grievances are deeper than those we mortals suffer.

The morning I hear of Jahazan’s capture, I pack food and water in a satchel, sharpen my sword, and set off into the desert. I do not know where Jinnistan is, or if the beautiful cities of the peri are even accessible by mortals, but I have heard that the Arabs believe it lies above the deev’s mountains, in the clouds that halo the highest peaks. It is a good a place to start looking as any other.

I wander the rocks of Mazandaran for many days. Sometimes I see the Serpent-King’s armies patrolling the valleys below; most of the time I see no one. When I run out of food, I hunt wild ibex and pick bitter narud grasses, those flowerless green needles that grow even in the winter months. Thoughts of Jahazan keep me warm during the cold New Persian nights. I dream of her anger, her cruelty and her lust, the things that brought us together, the things that tore us apart.

One night I find a peri-child captured in a trap I had laid for the ibex. It is a little girl with hair like sand and eyes of emerald. When I approach her she drops to all fours and throws dirt and stones at me, her face set in a bestial snarl. It’s laughable to think such a pathetic effort could deter a beast like me. I dismiss her little missiles with a wave of my hand; I kneel beside her on the ground.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad, and I do not want to hurt you. I need only information. How do I get to Jinnistan?”

The fairy girl sneers. “Tribute.”

I let her loose.

At day break I go hunting for larger prey. The deev Ennaza suns itself daily on a cliff nearby, its rippling, scaly flanks a common sight as I walk through these parts of Mazandaran. It is a dragon-deev, a great green lizard that stalks the peri who stray from the mountain paths, devouring them whole. I find it lumbering along a slope towards its favourite sunspot. Spines like sabres ripple in a frill about its stout neck; and its face is as puggish as a boar. The stench of death exudes from its flesh like some foul perfume.

Without hesitation I leap upon its back, my hands finding easy purchase on its scales. Ennaza howls with rage as I clamber toward its head, riding out the dragon’s bucking in the same way a horseman tames a wild stallion. As I cling to Ennaza’s spiny neck, it turns and fixes me with a huge, golden eye—and I see recognition there, in that cruel lizard brain.

“I know you,” it screams. “You are Rahaeb Reyad, Jahazan’s lover. What do you want from me?”


I cut its head from its shoulders and leave its body spasming on the slope. With my still-bleeding trophy in hand I walk to the top of the mountains, to the place where the clouds touch the earth.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad,” I shout to the sky. “Peri of Jinnistan, let me pass!”

Darkness comes then, and lightness too. Then before me the gates of the peri’s city appear, gleaming like Nubian gold, and as I watch they swing inward, to reveal a paradise that burns my heart.

In this paradise, maybe heaven, I am set upon by the peri.

They strip my sword from me and take all my clothes save my daujin, the loose cloth that preserves my modesty. They cut my hair and pluck away my eyelashes and beard. Across my bare chest they paint the letters ANDJIAH in Ennaza’s blood; in their language this word is a slur that means the killer of brothers. Then they bind my hands and feet to a pole and carry me like a dead pig through the beautiful jewelled streets of Jinnistan.

So many peri come to see my passing! They run from their homes and their shops to stare at me, as if I were some visiting royalty. Peri youths point and jeer and throw stones; their elders simply shake their heads, as if I represent a great failure to them. Small children hide their heads in their mothers’ skirts, while soldiers touch their hands to their swords reflexively, remembering past battles and my war-worn blade.

The peri take me to the palace in Amberabad, where their Queen Hasshana rules. In the palace’s stately courtroom, they chain my battered body to a ring in the floor. Stunned, silent, I stand there in wonderment. The court’s walls are alive with flowering vines, and sweet birds sit upon their buds. Its floor is a mosaic of jewels: ruby, emerald, and others more lovely that I have never seen before, perhaps mined from the lands of the Nubians or the Egyptians. And the ceiling of the court opens up to the clouds, which are charmed by their peri magics to form a perfect dome.

I begin to weep. I have not wept since childhood and without practice the act is awkward to me. I weep shamefully, then, hiding my face in my hands. About me the peri jeer, their pretty faces contorted to reflect the ugliness of deev-beast that lies within me.

“Let him alone.”

It is a clear voice, a woman’s voice, but a voice more lovely than any I’ve ever heard before. I raise my head and Queen Hasshana is standing over me.

“I know why you are here,” she says, taking my chin in her hand. “It is written all over your face—your eyes are dark with shame. You came to plead for the deev’s life. Isn’t that right?”

She is tiny, beautiful, with eyes that shine like a fire in the desert. I want to possess her, the way I once possessed Jahazan, the way the deev once possessed me. In her hands Hasshana holds one end of a golden cord, looped around her wrist like the leash of a pig or goat. The other end of the cord vanishes through the open door behind her.

“So you are the deev-kin.” She pushes me away and her peri-courtiers laugh. “Not mortal, not deev, but a bastard thing that belongs nowhere, to no one. You are worse than the deev, because you were once a true mortal—you made a choice to be like this. By rights I should kill you where you stand; your presence pollutes this holy place. What makes you think your pleas will mean anything to me?”

“Perhaps because you are curious.”

“Curious of what?”

“Curious of why I made that choice.”

Hasshana smiles. “Love in the time of the Serpent-King,” she says. “Who knows why any mortal makes a choice these days? If Ahriman himself whispered words of evil in your ear I would not be surprised. But come—you are here, and I suppose I can listen to you for a short time. Tell me why I should let your lover go.”

“She can be good, Queen,” I say. “Five years ago Jahazan came to me in a village I had destroyed. I was weak, I was broken. There, I might have taken my own life. She showed compassion then—she came to care for me.”

The Queen shakes her head. “She came to lead you astray. She encouraged your immorality. She fed you lies of bloodlust and sex. How many innocents have died because she ‘cared’ enough to let your evil loose in New Persia? You know as well as I do that a man who saves the devil will not find honour in heaven.”

“What about in the Serpent-King’s palace, then? She showed compassion; she saved my life so—”

“So another would die in your place. Did you know that the man who replaced you was a child of ten, son of the last general to stand against the Serpent-King’s cruelty? A child who died screaming his father’s name. His death weighed hardest on the people of New Persia, for it was only then that they understood even the strongest were powerless against Zohak.” Hasshana’s fingers loop about the cord, as deft as any weaver. “Why reward the man who saves the fool, only to kill the king. You are wasting my time, Rahaeb Reyad.”

“One last, please,” I say, pressing my forehead to the pretty stones at her feet. “From the time before I was made cruel, when I was still innocent of war. Jahazan took me from my village when it was destroyed by the deev armies, and brought me to safety. She had nothing to gain from my life in those days. She saw only a small child in a burning city and knew—“

“Compassion? Weakness, I would say,” Hasshana sneers.

“I thought only the deev believed those two words were interchangeable.”

The Queen stares at me for a long moment.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad, a mortal man,” I say. “And she loved me. From that day, in the burning village, she loved me.”

Her frown deepens, and I know then that she believes me. “Jahazan will not harm another being again, whether you take her or not,” she says. “We have tamed her; we cut the devilment from her. Now she is like a boar without its tusks, a snake without its fangs. It would be safer for her to stay with us. We could give her peace, here; we could give her purity. And there are many in New Persia who remember her cruelty—”

“Please,” I say.

Slowly she unbinds the golden cord from around her wrist and passes it to me. In my hands I feel it flex and tug slightly—there is a creature tied to the other end. Jahazan.

“She will never care for you again,” says Hasshana, turning away. “You saved her life but in doing so proved yourself weak as any mortal. She could not tolerate that in a lover. She will wish you dead.”

“I know,” I whisper.

“You must lead her through Amberabad and Jinnistan,” says the Queen. “While you hold that cord in your hand, you must not look back. Not until you are back in the land of mortals can you set her free. Now go, Rahaeb Reyad. Leave Jinnistan and never return—this place is not for your deev-kind.”

I am thirty, maybe thirty-one, when I walk through paradise with my deev-lover on a leash.

Through the jewelled city of Amberabad, where the streets are lined with foreign sea-shells and the houses are painted with blue enamel. Through the crowds of peri, who are no longer staring at me but at the broken deev dangling from the golden cord. Through Jinnistan, the heaven of fairies, and to the great gates that gleam like Nubian gold.

On the threshold I stand and stare down at the lands of mortals, the war-torn world of the Serpent King. And as I step out the cord behind me tugs, just once.

“Rahaeb Reyad.”


“Look at me,” she says softly, and then screams it: “Look at me.”

How can I refuse her? Even as the Queen’s warning rings in my ears, I turn around.

She is naked as she was when I first met her, save for that necklace of green stones around her neck. Her skin is still the colour of ochre, but her body casts a shadow now, a darkness on the sparkling Jinnistan street. She is human-shaped, but her iris are as they always were, ringed within and without by a thin line of orange. Yet they lack the fire they once had, that cruel passion. Queen Hasshana was right: they have cut the devilment from her, as sharply as husking wheat, and left only a shell. A weak deev like Jahazan would die in the kingdom of the Serpent-King.

And I realise with a suddenness that this is what was meant to happen; that Queen Hasshana never intended to let Jahazan go, only to teach me a lesson: that the only way to go forwards is to look back, for your future depends on everything that lies behind you.

I raise my hands to her: “Jahazan—“

But then the gates close and there are only clouds, and I am on top of the mountains of Mazandaran, with a light snow falling.

3 thoughts on “Love in the Time of the Serpent King

  1. Pingback: A Brief Bibliography of RJ Astruc - RJ's Talkback Plebe Radio

  2. Pingback: Awesome News from Basement Stories writers « Basement Stories

  3. Pingback: Awesome News from Basement Stories writers : Basement Stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *