“Would you like some more coffee?” the Raees said to his guest, who was kneeling on the ground in complete comfort. “Or would you care for some more panir?” Most of the students who met the Raees saw a man who was charged with running this place and had to be stern; here, in his plain brown scholar’s robes and his unbound beard that had more salt than pepper reaching down mid-chest, he was just a man entertaining a long-lost friend and gazing upon him with twinkling deep brown eyes.
“No thank you Raees; I am full, but I appreciate your hospitality,” Io replied, giving him a grateful smile. Eyes as blue as the Meditaar Sea watched his host return to his cushion and slowly lower himself to it, a sign of his advanced years. Age catches up to most of us, Io thought as he looked at the man that he had known, more or less, for over forty years. Of course for my people, old age isn’t something that too many of us get to experience. From the sleeve of his billowy white robe, a hand the color of pink granite reached out and picked up his coffee cop, taking a small sip and savoring the strength and bitterness of it. At least some things never changed, Io smiled to himself, like the fact that the Raees could still brew great coffee.
Io wasn’t an Aryan name, but it was the name he had chosen for himself after he Returned this last time, going on ten years ago. That was one of the nice things about being Deva, he mused, not having to accept social or racial restrictions that others did. He would have returned to the Raees much earlier if he could have, but his Rebirth occurred far away in the southwest part of Padeshahi, and he had spent a few years putting down a small rebellion that some ungrateful Arya had started. Something about wanting their land kept pure or some such nonsense. And then of course, there was the whole Deev incident in Susa that he had to take care of, since no other Deva had been in the area.
He had lost himself in his musings, he realized, but thankfully the Raees was used to it. Out of respect, the Deva didn’t use the name the Raees had given up when he assumed his position here at Gundishapur University, even though in his previous life Io had been female and the Raees and she had been lovers and companions. Even now, he could still remember how it felt to kiss the Raees deeply under the moonlight, breathless from their lovemaking; but, that man wasn’t attracted to the form that Io now possessed, which was saddening but understandable. Most people weren’t as flexible as Devas were about that sort of thing.
Even though he had lived many lives over the centuries, Io could still remember when the Yazata came down to him as he was lying on the battlefield next to his brother, both of them dying from wounds they had sustained driving off a Djinn-led force intent on killing the Shah. As the Angel knelt next to him, it thanked him for his selfless heroic acts and asked him if he would like the chance to continue to serve E’laa’hi for all eternity. All his life, all he wanted to do was good, and so he had agreed, on the one condition that his brother could be by his side. The Angel had concurred, and then proceeded to merge its spirit with his soul. Supposedly, there were only a total of 71 Deva in existence - but since their kind was so rare, Io could only remember meeting a few of them during his many lives and travels.
A gentle coughing brought him back to the present, which Io was grateful for; thinking of that time brought up painful memories of his brother and what he had become in his many lives since that moment. “If you are ready to walk, Io, I would love to show you around the University,” the Raees said to him, offering a hand up. Not wanting to offend his old friend, even though he didn’t need the hand up, Io accepted and let the Raees pull him to his feet, very conscious of the heavy gold ring that was a sign of his respected office and stewardship.
“Thank you my dear friend,” the Deva told him gratefully as he covered his bald head with the hood from his robe, covered on the hem and edges with Enochian script. All Deva, whether male or female, were completely hairless, and so he covered up not just to reduce the stares that he would receive for his appearance but also to protect his head from the sun. “I’m especially looking forward to seeing the Alchemy class and the Sha’ir class,” Io told his friend as the Raees bound his beard into a tail and covered his thinning hair with a simple white cap.
“Of course, honored Sheikh, it will be my pleasure.” As the Raees pushed open the door from his office, Io put his coffee mug down on the side table in the room. Since he didn’t know where he could take his dish to clean it, he figured that one of the staff would come along and attend to it. Turning to his assistant, the Raees informed him, “I will be escorting our honored guest on a tour of our University; if an emergency comes up or I am needed, just send one of the younger working students to fetch me.” Some of the students came from poor families, but they had amazing grades in school, and so they worked doing odd jobs at the University to help pay for the tuition that their families couldn’t afford. An admirable solution, Io thought.
“Yes, Raees. You and the honored guest have a blessed day,” the assistant told them both, giving them a small bow of respect. Io had never been a Sheikh before this life, and it was still a little unsettling the degree to which people treated him almost like he was the Shahan-shah. But, as long as he didn’t let it go to his head, like some Sheikhs he had heard of, it was more a reflection of their faith in E’laa’hi than worship of him…at least, that’s how he tried to justify it to himself.
Just when they were about to leave, two female Human students came into the offices. “Shaagerd Laleh, shaagerd Firuzeh. Why are you here today?” The friendly tone that he had just used when talking to his assistant was gone, and now the Raees had adopted the strict tone of the head of one of the biggest Universities in the world.
The one female looked pale and shaken, and since her friend seemed to be the only thing keeping her standing upright she was the one who spoke up. “Raees, Ostaad Lahahana sent Laleh down here to speak to the female Headmistress about punishment for lying to an Ostaad.”
Making a ‘tsk’ noise repeatedly, the Raees pointed down the hall. “Take her down there Firuzeh, and then head to lunch yourself. You don’t need to witness it, and you would be doing her no favors waiting outside while she wailed from the paddling. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Raees. Honorable guest,” Firuzeh said, bowing to Io as best she could, before escorting her friend down where the Raees had pointed. Upon making eye contact with the young Human female, the Deva felt a shock to his core and it was if the sky had opened up and driven away clouds obscuring his vision. Whomever she was, she was important to him and thus important to E’laa’hi. Io made a mental note to come back and talk to her when they could have a little privacy, to find out why she resonated so strongly with him. He knew it wasn’t because he had known her in one of his previous lives, since she would have been but an infant the last time he was alive. But that would be later, and so he let his oldest friend lead him outside.
As they left the faculty offices, Io watched as most of the students stopped and stared at him before bowing to him in respect, right hand placed over their heart. He tried his best to bow back, but there were just so many of them that he knew he must have missed more than a few. “I know it’s your people’s custom to treat Sheikhs in this way, but it does make me a little uncomfortable,” he whispered to the Raees as they walked along.
Chuckling, the Raees leaned his head close to Io’s. “I know, my dear friend; you were never one for fame or fortune. However, how you choose to react is your choice, not theirs.”
This echoed Io’s thoughts from just moments before so perfectly that he couldn’t help but to give a small laugh. “Are you sure that you aren’t secretly a Psion, reading my thoughts?”
Grinning ruefully, the Raees shook his head no. “At times I wish that I was; it would make a lot of the headaches that come with running a University go away. But no, I’ve just known you longer than I’ve known anyone else. Your form may change, but your personality, who YOU are, does not.” That grin was so familiar that Io felt an ache deep inside; a small part of him wanted to caress his once beloved, as they used to do, but he knew that it would make things awkward between them. He already knew that after his previous life’s death, sacrificed stopping an assassin from killing the Raees, the head of the University had never found another lover or gotten married. For him, Io’s former life was the only love he would know.
“The alchemy class doesn’t meet until later and in secrecy, my old friend –in fact, the young girl Firuzeh that you just met is one of the top students in that class. Anyway, since we can’t visit it right now, we can at least show off the Sha’ir class for you.”
Patting his friend’s arm in a friendly manner, Io smiled at him. “That sounds wonderful, honored Raees. Lead the way.” They shuffled off towards the stairs leading up to the second floor of the University. Potentially more dangerous courses, such as learning how to be a Sha’ir, were kept there to potentially minimize the damage any failed experiments may cause. Naturally, the Deva could have moved much faster if he were on his own, but he would never think of wounding his friend’s pride in that way, and so they moved at a pace the Raees felt comfortable with, so at odds with the way he remembered him before the Lost Time.
That was what the time between death and rebirth was known as to the Deva, since they never could recall any memories of what lay beyond the veil. All that was known was that it was a time of peace and reflection, and when they were ready and they were needed once more they returned somewhere in the Kingdom. It was a sign of the compact that the land held with E’laa’hi (or more realistically, its agents the Yazata) that the Deva were reborn only in the most pristine and pure locales. As long as mortals didn’t ruin or spoil the land, it would allow the Deva to rise from it to continue their eternal fight against evil and corruption. Of course, sometimes those who fought corruption the hardest ended up being tainted by it over time.
Shaking his head to banish the negative thoughts, Io was relieved to find that they were at the classroom door of the Sha’ir Ostaad. The Raees knocked, and was given permission to enter before they did by a deep booming voice; earlier the Raees had explained they did this not out of fear they were intruding, but out of respect in case the Ostaad was teaching his shaagerd something that could cause harm to others if left unchecked. One thing I must admit, Io thought, my old friend makes an amazing Raees for this University.
As they pushed open the door, Io spotted around ten or so students all paused in their writing so they could see who was entering. He didn’t get to see much more than that, because the Ostaad had paused in his lecture to bow respectfully to the Raees. When he saw the Raees’s guest, he started to bow but stopped when he saw what he was as Io pushed back his hood as a sign of respect. “DEVA!” the Efreet bellowed before leaping behind his desk. This caused all of the students to panic and run to the sides of the room…all except one that is. A small silver-haired Djinn-touched stood up and began to speak in the Elemental tongue, eyes never wavering from Io’s face.
“Never again the Burning Times, you killer! If you’re here for my head, you won’t get it without a fight!” From behind the desk, the Efreet stood up, legs spread apart as he too began speaking in the Elemental tongue. Unlike his student his mastery of the Sha’ir arts was better, and his gen servant –an Elemental being bound to the Sha’ir so they could cast magic- appeared quickly in mid-air in front of him, its form a wispy air spirit that resembled a grey tornado.
“STOP THIS AT ONCE!” the Raees shouted out, and everyone ceased all actions. Except Io, who hadn’t moved from his spot when he entered the classroom and hadn’t drawn a weapon nor assumed a defensive stance in all the commotion. The Deva just waited calmly for the head of the University to restore order to the room. Once he had surveyed the class and made sure that his words were heeded, the Raees straightened out his robes and turned towards the Efreet, hands on his hips. “Could you please explain your actions, Ostaad Lahahana, before I revoke your tenure and expel you from these grounds?”
Looking for a moment like a scolded child, which was quite an odd look on a being who was over 6’ tall, the Efreet sent his gen servant away with a whispered phrase. “Honored Raees, forgive me; it’s just, well, in our past the Deva hunted us down like jackals for the pacts that my ancestors made with the Deev. It is something that is taught to each new generation: never again the Burning Times, when pyres filled with Efreet bodies turned night into day as scores of us were slaughtered, and smoke covered the sky for miles and miles.”
“Yes, hmm, well,” the Raees appeared out of sorts for just a moment before turning to Io. “Were you planning on killing him today, Sheikh Io?” Upon hearing his title, most of the class gasped in shock and even the Efreet and his diminutive guard seemed taken aback.
“Absolutely not, honored Raees. It is true, I am ashamed to admit, that in the past my kind believed that all Efreet were tainted evil from their ancestors’ actions; but, we stopped that barbaric practice well over nine centuries ago when it was proven that they could be a force for good in Padeshahi.” Cocking his head to the side, Io remembered something that should shed some light on this previously tense stand-off. “In fact, if I recall it correctly, it was because an Efreet died being heroic and was granted the honor of becoming a Deva.” Everyone, including the Raees, were struck silent by that revelation.
After a moment, the Raees cleared his throat. “All right then. Ostaad Lahahana, with your permission, I would like to release your shaagerd to an early lunch.”
“Of course, honorable Raees,” the Efreet said before sitting down abruptly in the chair behind his desk. It must have been made for his massive frame, for it barely even squeaked. The students gathered up their things and filed out the door, bowing to him and the Raees as they did. Normally, Io imagined getting to take an early lunch would have been cause for celebration, but it appeared that today the students wanted to stay and hear what the Sheikh and their Ostaad had to say to one another.
One student was in a polite but heated argument with the Efreet. It was the Djinn-touched, the one who had defended her Ostaad. Even though he wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, Io couldn’t help but overhear her speaking in a hushed tone. “Ostaad Lahahana, let me stay and observe! That way, in case he tries anything suspicious, it’s not just you against him.”
Smiling fondly at his fierce shaagerd, the Efreet shook his head no. “I appreciate the thought, Olgun, but if I can’t trust the word of my Raees, much less the word of a Sheikh, then there’s nothing in this world I can trust at all. I’ll be OK, my dear; trust in me.”
Watching the two of them talk, Io was struck once again by that feeling of the sky opening up and the clouds being removed from his vision. Something about the two of them was very important to him and his mission. It was odd, but sometimes when a Deva awoke from being reborn, he had an instinctual grasp of what he had been brought back to do, and other times they simply wandered the land righting wrongs and helping out the people. When he had opened his eyes years ago, Io had known what he was brought back to do, and apparently these two and that alchemy student were a part of it.
“It’s all right with me if she stays honored Raees, and honored Ostaad. In fact, Ostaad Lahahana, you both are quite necessary to do what I have set out to do.” As three puzzled sets of eyes turned to him, Io made sure to go back and lock the door before continuing. Not that he suspected anyone at the University per se, but it’s always the serpent you don’t see that strikes you down, a saying he himself had made up over four centuries ago. When he got back to them, he answered the unasked question. “I need you to help me bring down a dishonest Sheikh before he causes ruin to this land that can’t be repaired.” Shocked silence greeted his statement.
“Do you have a name for this miscreant, honored Sheikh?” the Raees spoke up.
“Unfortunately, yes. While he’s had many names over the centuries, the name he goes by now is Bahram. He is also my brother from when we were mortal.” Io closed his eyes in shame so he didn’t have to see the dismay on their faces. After all, it’s not every day that one is asked to bring to justice a Sheikh, must less help a Deva commit fratricide. He could understand the horror they must be feeling, but it was nothing compared to his own misery. But, if he didn’t stop his brother, more was at stake than any of them could know about, and so the man once known as Rostam would have to stop the man he once called Shaghad any way that he could.