A wanderer seeks access to a legendary forbidden city–but not before she convinces the mysterious gatekeeper of her worth. A Sultan gets more than he bargained for when a djinn offers him a night of pleasure unlike any other. Like a Veil: Tales of Arabian Nights is Circlet Press’s latest erotica anthology, inspired by the storytelling arts and erotic visions of Sharazad.
Editors Michelle Labbé and Cecilia Tan present four tantalizing stories that take readers into the sensual, rich and strange world of the Arabian Nights. Just as Sharazad wove stories as rich as damask to captivate the sultan and preserve her life, the stories in Like a Veil promise to entice readers with pleasure far beyond a thousand and one nights.
- Her Way by Anya Levin
- Blue-Eyed Djinn by Angela Goldsberry
- Catch and Release by Sunny Moraine
- The Eater of Stories by Sophia Deri-Bowen
Read an excerpt:
Excerpt from “Her Way” by Anya Levin
They say that magic lives in the desert, but I’m not sure I’ve found it yet.
There’s something beyond mundane belief and certainty, to be sure. Once past the stone bastions of civilization, as our small party edged into the eternal, ever-changing wilderness, it seemed as though a stone fell from my shoulders. Blinders, as they like to say, fell from my eyes. Things became possible that have been scoffed at by those who consider themselves rational. Stories discounted as mythical or euphemistic in countless ancient storybooks become eerily reasonable to a mind subjected to the open sprawl of the desert and the baking heat of the sun high above.
Are such revelations–realizations–magic, or just the unfortunate side-effects of one’s brain boiling away? It was hard to tell.
Whatever the impetus behind the sudden freeing of my brain, for that’s what it was, in truth, it only made it easier to follow the robed form of our guide as he led the way. It only made my imagination run all the more rampant with forbidden, fantastical, and visceral longings. Fantasies rose to my mind as we plodded through the sands, images and feelings that I never would have contemplated airing in the sunlight before, let alone allowing to affect me so much that each footstep of my hump-backed mount left me squirming that much more.
It was a good thing that I adored the heat, as we’d been traversing a mostly unmapped section of desert for nearly a week already. If I’d been a northerner born and bred I’d no doubt be miserable. As it was, I’d long since stopped wishing for a bath or fresh clothing. My current burning desire–well, the desire that had some chance of being fulfilled, at least–was for a modicum of privacy to urinate, or even to change my increasingly saturated underthings.
Such a thing would be dangerous in the desert, of course, where direction can be difficult to ascertain even with a compass, and I’d long grown used to the two men I traveled with being within sight and hearing at all times, but realistic necessities didn’t eradicate those wistful desires.
“We’re almost there,” Clay called.
His voice was muted by the cloth that covered his mouth, and the fact that he was two camel-lengths ahead of me, but the news did give a sense of momentary mental buoyancy. I admitted to myself that I’d started to despair of ever reaching our goal, despite the fact that I’d been the one most insistent throughout our journey that we’d finally find the lost city.
“I don’t see any buildings,” Mark shouted. Big, burly, skeptical Mark. He’d come along just in case, I think, because he was afraid that if I did find anything and he wasn’t a part of the expedition, he’d lose all standing in his department back miles away at the University.
“The desert is deceptive,” Clay yelled back. It was a phrase that fell from his lips often. As if he were the only one of us who’d ever trekked through a desert. As if anyone could achieve the places that Mark and I held without practical archaeological experience. That included desert treks in both our cases.
“Besides,” Clay continued. “Even the biggest city can be buried with enough sand.” Which was all too true.
We’d barely managed to gather the funds for Clay’s salary.
Heavy-duty digging equipment, particularly the kind of machinery required for the delicate art of archaeological discovery, had always been far beyond our budget. But, if we found any sign of a former civilization, so far from any marked inhabitants, current or historical, well…that would be a different story entirely.
Finding a definitive object could make our careers for the rest of our lives.
Finding the lost city would also, I hoped, shed some light on the evocative, almost impossible-to-believe illustrations that I’d found. Illustrations and descriptions that still haunted me in the most desperate and, some would say, depraved manner.
The camels plodded on. I could tell from the tightness in Mark’s back that despite his overt disbelief, the excitement was digging its claws into him. I smiled, and adjusted my sweat-dampened hat. We were almost there…
Clay ground to a halt ahead, leaving Mark and I hauling on our respective reins. The guide’s demeanor changed, became something less the affable, easygoing leader we’d been following for days and something darker, and perhaps even dangerous.
He wasn’t just a guide, I reminded myself. We’d hired him to be our security, as well.
I edged my camel forward with nudges–we’d developed something of a relationship over the last few days of travel, I liked to think–and sucked in a breath.
There, smack-dab on the spot where, according to the map I’d pieced together, the lost city was to be found, sat a tent. It wasn’t a large tent, either, and it stood alone, anchored in the middle of the desert, far from sources of food or water. There was no other sign of habitation, no animals, no other structures. The land surrounding the tent was pristine, smooth sand shifted by the wind and nothing else.
Curiosity burned, and I barely restrained myself from leaping from the camel and running forward to see what secrets the tent held. I wondered what kind of person made a home so deep in the desert, for though there was no overt evidence of life, the fact that the tent stood was proof enough for me that either someone dwelled within its canvas walls, or had until recently.
The desert wasn’t very considerate of humanity’s detritus. Many years of archaeological experience had made that very clear.
It still came as a shock, however, when the front flap of the tent was suddenly thrust open and a woman stepped into the afternoon sunlight.
She was tall and lithe and regal, and looked like she’d just come out of a palace, not a grubby, weather-beaten tent. She was incredibly beautiful. Her dark hair fell in smooth, orderly waves down her back, and her skin was burnished golden, clean and soft-looking. She wore simple clothing, an unexpectedly colorful skirt and shirt combination that clashed as much as the rest of her with her surroundings.
I felt dirty, dried out, and hopelessly worn in comparison.
The woman motioned graciously, beckoning us into the tent.
The situation feeling wholly unreal, I looked at Mark, and then Clay.
Mark tugged at the cloth tucked around his mouth, pulled it free to reveal a hair-stubbled chin. “Do we have another choice?” Clay answered by slinging his leg over his camel’s side and leaping to the ground. He strode toward the woman and ducked beneath the tent flap she was holding open, and went into the tent without a backward glance. Mark and I glanced at each other, and Mark slowly followed suit.
And so, obeying the strange sense of rightness in my head, I left the camel, reins dangling at its side. I stepped firmly across the sands, my boots sliding and sinking, finally reaching the tent flap and finding myself face to face with the woman. She smelled of musk and the glint in her eyes sent frissons of something indefinable racing up and down my spine.
I stepped into the tent.
Darkness surrounded me instantly, and it took some moments before my eyes adjusted and I could see the low table surrounded by cushions and Mark and Clay seated before it. I took the pillow that was left, and settled onto the ground beside them.The woman flowed into the room, moving as if her feet weren’t touching the ground. She settled onto a cushion that hadn’t been there. “Tea?”
She spoke English.
I opened my mouth, then blinked, seeing that there was, after all, a full tea set laid out on the table. I took the cup in front of me, suddenly feeling the overwhelming dryness of my throat.
“Delicious,” I said. And it was.
“Who are you?” Clay asked. The cup he was holding looked tiny and delicate in his hand.
“You are getting ahead of yourself,” the woman said, her tone clearly warning.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Mark said. “There’s supposed to be a city here.” He looked around the tent. “Are you on top of the ruins? Do you know where they are?”
“You’ve come looking for the lost city,” she said, ignoring Mark’s questions. “But to find the city you must prove yourselves to me.”
“Who are you?” Clay asked again, his fingers tightening on the cup’s handle until I fully expected the china to break under the stress.
The woman continued, “To earn the way, you must demonstrate why the way should be opened to you.”
Mark, Clay, and I shared a long look of perplexity.
“And it is I you must convince,” she said with an air of finality.
It briefly occurred to me to wonder why I wasn’t questioning the woman, but then the concern was gone. Questions, I somehow knew, were unnecessary.
Clay leaned back, sucking in air between his teeth with a hissing whistle. He looked to Mark and me. “This is your quest. I’m just along for the ride.”
Mark nodded, and cleared his throat. He squared his shoulders and faced the woman. “I should be allowed access to the city because I can discover the past of the city, and bring it to the world.”
The woman nodded. “You seek the city for fame, and fortune.”
“No!” Mark protested, shaking his head. “Or at least, not fame and fortune for me. I want fame for the city, and fortune for the people of your country. For myself…I want to find the city because…” Mark trailed off, gathered himself. “This city hasn’t been seen, known, in centuries. To see it, to touch it…”
The woman stared at Mark, her eyes losing focus, and then looked away.
Clay was next in the woman’s sights. “You? Why should you be allowed access to the city?”
Clay’s hands flew into the air, and he pushed back from the low table. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m just the guide here.” He flashed a grin, bright teeth in the darkness of the room. “I’m not really interested in your city.”
“You lie well,” the woman observed.
Clay paled, then flushed, and seemed to fold in on himself.
The woman turned to me. “And you? Will you earn access?”
I found myself at a loss for words.
Though I’d been trying furiously to think of a way to satisfy this woman’s questioning, some appropriate, scholarly reasoning that would surpass Mark’s fame-seeking and yet reveal the personal angle to my search, something that was clearly necessary, all I could think about were the black and white limbs and the delicious descriptions that I’d read in the books, and the imaginings that had featured in my fantasies for so many long months.
A world where to love someone–physically, emotionally–was not just acceptable, or possible once the intricacies of social obligation and connection had been fulfilled, but something that was celebrated. And the rich detail of the stories… I controlled a shiver, and swallowed hard, wondering. What if they were only stories? What if…
I cut off that line of thinking, looked into the woman’s patient, liquid eyes.
She wanted honesty, clearly, from her reaction to Clay’s response, and something very personal, from her reaction to Mark.
Which left me with little choice.
“I want to know the truth.” I tried to cobble together more of my thoughts, stumbled mentally over words and feelings. “I want to know…”
The woman’s eyes sharpened. I had the sudden certainty that she knew exactly what was in my mind. It felt as if she were more than looking at me, more than looking through me, even. She was looking into me. Heat cascaded through my body, embarrassment mixed with a startling excitement.
“Ah,” she said. “You…you are interesting.” She leaned forward, and everything shifted.
The table shrank, the tea things disappeared, and suddenly it was just me and the woman in the tent.
My breath came fast. A strange heaviness had infused the air when the tent changed, and now my body felt soft and languid and full of need. All I could think about were the images and stories that I’d seen and read. And there must have been something mind-scrambling at work, as well, because mixed in with all those ancient remnants I’d absorbed the woman who sat across the table from me seemed to be suddenly, deeply, entangled in my thoughts.
The woman blinked her large, dark eyes. “You said you wanted access to the city,” she said. “But it’s not as easy as simply arriving here. Or even just asking, unfortunately.”
I shifted on my cushion. What was the woman suggesting?
“You see, the city isn’t quite so lost–or so dead–as some think it to be. As you think it to be,” the woman said.
The idea was mind-boggling. “Are you saying the city is…”
“The city you seek thrives,” the woman affirmed, “and you may very well be allowed to see it. But the ways of Alkaz are the same as they have been for centuries, and not everyone would be able to understand those ways.”
“Alkaz,” I breathed. The name fit everything I’d heard–and hoped–about the city.
“The pictures, the stories that have survived of the city’s history, those are how Alkaz reaches out to find those who may be…compatible.”
“That’s mad.” I laughed. “Those things, they didn’t bring me to the city. Researching the city led to me finding the stories…” I trailed off, convicted by her eyes and the honesty between us.
She finished my thought. “And led you to the city.”
I didn’t want to be convinced. Who would want to think their actions driven by something beyond them, that some ancient city was forcing them to live and breathe and, finally, venture forth? And yet…the idea was alluring. It seemed as if I’d been chosen.
But there were challenges left to conquer. I steeled myself, clenched my fingers together, and asked, “What’s next?”
“Now comes the final step of your test. Will you be able to live in Alkaz? Would you be able to handle the gifts that the city would give you?”
All sense of firm belief was gone, lost in the haze of the desert heat and the throbbing pulse of desire that I couldn’t seem to shake. I found myself leaning forward, found the table wasn’t there anymore and it was just me and her, alone. The sides of the tent had gone and we were on a rug, on the sand, bathed in moonlight.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
The woman raised a brow and asked, “What do you want to do?”
The question set off the arousal that had been smoldering, the simple words leaving my body and mind in a blaze fit to immolate.
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