Knowledge in Damascus was a commodity just like everything else. It can be bought and sold, some pieces of knowledge were more valuable than others, and it was never given out for free. Asha quickly learned, however, that Leyla was a skilled haggler when it came to working the markets.
“Listen pal, there’s only one Queen of Heaven we’re interested in, so shove your Homer up your sack and give me what I want.” Leyla’s hands were on his hips, staring with cold eyes at the withered merchant, standing like an iron wall before his pile of books.
“I see you’re a customer with particular interests.” He wheezed between old teeth “But I have many books with many tales, and taking the time to search specifics is a long task, and an expensive one.”
“Oh I’m sure.” Leyla said “But we’re not all that picky. Ishtar, Inanna, Astarte, Asteroth, any of these names are good, and if you can find it in that moth-balled skull to dig a book up with one of those names we might just reward you handsomely.”
“I have many books” The merchant said, beady eyes locked with Leyla’s. “And the young had best to learn to be patient, and with the knowledge that special services cost more, in both money and favors.”
“Many books maybe” Leyla growled “But not that many teeth left.”
“So the child likes to play at threats?” The merchant says “Unwise if they want my business.”
“We’re not here for threats, we’re here for books.” Leyla said “And if you have none to satisfy our needs we’ll go elsewhere, and spread word that Abdul Al-Rashid is a miscreant and a vendor of worthless books.”
“Feh” The merchant spat before reaching back to gently pull a thick tome free. “This will satisfy a basic need, but for patience and goods of worth a better guide could likely be found.”
Leyla tossed him a sack of seeds and spiced bread before taking the book “For you we’re out of both. Let’s roll, Asha.”
The two left and began to walk out of the crowded market district as Leyla began to flip through the old book.
“What’s it written in?” Asha asked “Hellenic Greek? Latin?”
“Oxford English.” Leyla smirked “It’s an old scholarly publication though..ya, this should have what we need. It has a section on the worship of Ishtar in Assyrian temples.”
“Then let’s take it back to the apartment” Asha said “And we’ll have a read through. The offerings can’t be that bad, probably just fruit spices and meat.”
Several hours later, Rachel and Constance returned to find the apartment in a state of uproar. Asha and Leyla arguing furiously with Eli caught in the middle.
“Absolutely not!” Asha shouted “It’s out of the question and we’re not even certain it’ll work!”
“Well to hell with the other idea!” Leyla shot back “That description is nothing like me!”
“It’s absolutely like you!”
Rachel’s voice cut through the apartment living room “And what, pray tell, is this uproar about?”
“At a guess” Constance slithered up to her side “Asha and Leyla have discovered what we did: That Ishtar’ worship is less about sacrifices and more about specific ‘acts’ shall we say. Certain acts that in modern society could be considered salacious and lewd.”
“More or less” Asha folded her arms over her chest, cheeks crimson “The sources we found said that one of the prominent ways Ishtar was worshipped was through the dancing and possibly…other acts of androgynous young men.”
All eyes in the apartment turned to Leyla, whose face was as red as Asha’s “Okay first of all.” He pointed at himself “Not a man.”
“Mentally debatable but physically…” Asha began but stopped at a hard glance from Leyla.
“You have to admit you’re kind of an unusual case, Leyla.” Eli said “Probably a unique one.”
“The other method…” Leyla said more loudly “Is supposedly sacred prostitution.”
“Supposedly” Asha repeated “There was a lot of debate. And I’m not about to…”
“Look it can be easy” Leyla said “Just have Eli give you a coin or something then get all hot and heavy on the altar. You probably don’t even have to go all the way, just…simulate it a bit.”
“No!” Asha stamped her foot “Eli is…well no offense but not my type.”
“Is no one going to ask my opinion on that plan?” Eli asked “I have a few objections of my own.”
“It’s the easiest way.” Leyla said “And it needs to be a man and a woman, you two are the only clear-cut case of that who aren’t also demons.”
“I’ll try not to be insulted” Constance said dryly.
“It is probably for the best” Rachel said “We do not know what kind of affect our presence would have. Though you three are being quite childish about this.”
“I’m not being childish!” Asha objected “And Leyla just needs to-“
“Not a boy” Leyla said again “It’ll be easier if you-“
“Not a prostitute.” Asha shot back.
“We shall compromise.” Rachel said loudly “I don’t know many gods but I do know enough. If they’re as starved for worship as we believe Ishtar to be, then she’ll come running at even a subpar display.”
“It’s like if you only sort of know what someone wants” Constance said “You get them a gift card to a place you know they like so they can spend it how they choose. Ishtar is a war goddess and a sex goddess, so two warriors that embrace in her name should be more than enough.”
“Wait, two warriors.” Asha said “So…me and Leyla? And by embrace you mean…”
“It is the best of both worlds as I see it.” Constance smiled.
“Can’t we wait for Hazif to come back?” Leyla asked.
“I wouldn’t” Eli said “He’s half succubus and not really a warrior…”
“Not to mention I don’t like it when he touches me.” Asha frowned.
“And of course” Constance added “If he returns at all, he may do so with an amorous and violent dragon woman in tow.”
A silence fell over the group as they mulled through their options. Asha took a brief glance at Leyla, trying to see him in a more physical sense than she had before. He was certainly handsome if more femininely built. Slender shoulders and a thin waist under a softly curved face with high cheekbones, certainly not unattractive but…
“Don’t you…” Asha said hesitantly “Share all your senses with your brother?”
“Most of the time, yes.” Leyla said.
“That would be a big problem with it.” Asha said “It’s not entirely Leyla’s body and I’m not sure anyone would be comfortable doing it with their sibling as a copilot.”
“I mean obviously I’d need to talk it over with Derya!” Leyla’s face was burning red “And I can…shut him out for a while if I have to. I don’t like to since it’s not normally a problem but…”
“And there’s the fire spirit as well.” Asha said.
“Well, he doesn’t really care and…j-just give me a few minutes to talk it over with them!”
“Sure, I need some air anyway.” Asha said hurriedly, moving out of the room and onto the balcony outside, shutting the sliding door behind her to have a moment to herself.
She folded her arms, looking out over the city as her thoughts became a muddled mess. Leyla was her coworker, she liked and respected him and understood his…unusual circumstances. She hadn’t paid much attention to him physically, in fact their adventuring had been so all-consuming that she had barely paid any attention to that at all. Though it may be that it was due to her newfound powers as well. Nothing seemed to kill the libido quite like being killed and resurrected by divine energy.
Eli wasn’t her type. Too pacifistic, too meek, and she had a feeling she wasn’t his type in a much more significant way. Leyla however…now that she thought about it she couldn’t quite stop thinking about it. Besides, it’s not like she was proposing to him. This could be a one-off thing, just enough to summon Ishtar then to never be spoken of again.
Then there was the gender thing. Sure the body was male and that worked for her, but pronouns aside Leyla identified herself as female first and foremost. Not to mention sharing that brain with her brother. That bizarre mix of identities cast a pretty strange shadow over everything. Still…did Asha really have that much of a problem with Leyla being female? She teased Cat all the time even after learning her preferences.
“Ugh…”Asha sighed to herself, eyes staring out blankly towards the afternoon sky “What a mess.”
Did it really matter how or why she liked Leyla? Leyla was her friend, teammate, and confidante. He was cheerful, friendly, and certainly attractive. Assuming Derya and the fire spirit weren’t involved, would it be so bad? Briefly she spent a second to imagine Leyla naked, and the color rushed back into her face. Nervously she played with her fingers as her legs fidgeted. She wasn’t sure if she could date Leyla. She wasn’t ready to put the idea of love on the table yet…but if she would be willing to sleep with him for a mission? To summon a goddess who could help them overthrow Shadiya. She might be able to tolerate that.
She might even enjoy it.
A few minutes later, having readied herself, she stepped back inside the apartment to meet the others. Leyla was in one of the chairs, trying to keep a straight face but looking about as awkward as Asha likely did.
“So…” Asha began “What does your brother have to say.
“Well…” The color was clear on Leyla’s face “He said his body is as much mine as his, and while he doesn’t generally approve of ‘perverse practices’, he’s willing to submit to our judgment particularly given your…mm the words he used were ‘righteous and impressive body’…I think that’s his way of saying you’re hot.”
“Th-that’s good I guess.” Asha nervously took a seat on the couch. She noticed that the other three were all now pointedly doing something else, save for Rachel who didn’t bother to hide her eavesdropping. “But if he’s going to be around and active while we’re…hypothetically…”
“Oh! Nonono” Leyla shook his head vehemently “Derya will be shut off in a back little corner of my brain. He won’t be seeing or feeling anything or giving me any…running commentary. Neither of us wanted to get into the implications of that.” Leyla shuddered a little.”
“Well then” Asha was feeling a little more confident at the idea of dealing with Leyla alone “…what do you think of…well, me?”
“Oh well that…” Leyla stammered, his face still red “I mean, I thought you were gorgeous ever since I pulled you…er…your Fravashi out of that glass box.”
“And the fact that I’m a woman doesn’t…”
“I don’t really pick sides…so to speak.” Leyla said “And I’ve had this body for a few years…like Derya said it’s as much mine as his so I know…how it operates.”
“Oh come on don’t describe it like that!” Asha shut her eyes.
“Hey look how weird do you think it was for me!?” Leyla said, but he managed a smile “But I think with a little effort you and I can…make something work.”
Asha took a long breath “Alright it’s…worth a shot right?”
“And if it’s weird we just won’t speak of it.” Leyla nodded.
Asha smiled “It’s already pretty weird, Leyla.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa