Chapter 1: Shady Dealings in Shady Alleys

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The saying goes that if a young man's pride were a rope, it could strangle the world thrice over. On a dry and well-worn road, west of a teeming market and east of a lazy river, two young men faced one.

"Why are you following us? You don't live here," said a hefty boy with crossed arms. His comrade, equally as hefty but only half as bold, nodded his support a step back. The two of them wore fine turbans, dyed a deep and expensive green, and their shirts had no frays or tears, unlike the boy across from them.

"I-I know," the lone boy, Faruq, stuttered. "I-I just wanted to see..."

"See what?"

"Old Ayman's house."

The other two boys burst out laughing. "What? Why?" said the first. "You don't actually think that you..." The thickset boy laughed again and pointed at Faruq. "Listen, your father works for my father. We live in Westmarket and you live in," he curled his lip. "Southmarket. And that will never change. Now, go away!"

He picked up a pebble and flung it at Faruq. His friend, emboldened, found a slightly larger one and threw that as well. "Yes, go!" he shouted gleefully.

Faruq puffed out his chest. "No!" he shouted. A stone hit him square on the breastbone with a painful thump, and he hunched over, rubbing the spot.

"Go! Go!" the other boys chanted, breathless with exertion. The pebbles flew faster. Faruq turned, hands covering his head, and ran. Triumphant laughter chased after him.

Faruq's sandals pounded the dirt as he followed the curve of the road back to the market, indignant rage building and building within him. He stopped outside the tall arch of the market's west entrance, stepping aside as a man led two fat goats through. Faruq's father had been going on for almost a year about how he would soon be able to afford a goat.

"Stupid Jamal," Faruq muttered and punched at the air. Jamal's family probably had ten goats. Faruq's shoulders slumped. He was so tired of admiring the clean white lines of the Westmarket skyline from afar, so tired of shabby clothes and shabbier surroundings, so tired of wanting and wishing.

Perhaps he should really wish.

It worked for Old Ayman after all. Faruq felt jealousy all mixed up with excitement whenever he thought about the elderly beggar—well, former beggar—who had done the unthinkable and volunteered to test a wish. Miraculously, he was spared the Djinn's curse. Instead, quick as an arrow the vagrant had become a rich man, richer even than Jamal's father, and now he lived in a big house right by the water with servants, many camels and goats, and he had just married his second wife.

The more Faruq stood by the road, fuming, the harder his resolve became. The sting of the pebbles and the bite of the other boys' laughter played over in his head until at last a sort of madness clouded his mind red. He would test a wish, right then, before he lost his nerve.

He ran into the market.

#

Faruq crouched behind an urn almost as tall as he was, the light scent of oranges teasing his nose with every quick breath. What kind of luck was this, he thought, that his older sister would be shopping in this area of the market now of all times. He couldn't let Thamina see him, or he was finished. She would definitely want to know why he was so far from home, and she would see through any excuse he could come up with.

Wedged between the urn and a table piled with colorful scarves, his face screwed up in discomfort, Faruq could see only dozens of sandaled feet traversing the main market road. When he dared to peek over the urn he had to squint against the midday sun, and the familiar sight of his sister's pink headscarf was like a beacon. She was bent over examining some fruit. Ahura Mazdaa, he cursed, knowing he couldn't stay there. Even if he turned away, shrewd-eyed Thamina would spot him as she passed his hiding place, and then she would try to force him to go home, not that he would listen. He hated how his sister always bossed him around.

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