Chapter 2: Slow Down, Stupid Boy

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They soon reached the walkway that led through the outer courtyard to the palace. Green palm trees lined its length, their leaves drooping but vibrant. Never in his young life had Faruq been this close to the seat of the King, and his heart thudded as he set foot on the marble path. It was almost sacrilegious to traverse the pristine walkway, but sacrilege or not he had to hurry to keep up with Abdul-Aziz.

Once more Faruq squinted up at the towers, but even so close he could only see colored flames licking and snapping inside the glass. Abdul-Aziz led him past white fountains that gushed sparkling water up at the sky, past rich men and women who whizzed by in blurs of silk and color and perfume, and past dark-bearded guardsmen whose scowls could be seen in their eyes, but no one impeded their journey. Faruq could hardly believe it.

At last they approached a tall archway carved into the white stone of the palace's outer wall, and grim guardsmen stood on each side, one light as sand, one dark as soil. The curved swords that hung from their hips gleamed and their faces were alert and hostile as the boys approached. Faruq gaped up at them, sure that his trek had come to an end. And yet when Abdul-Aziz took off his cap and nodded to the men, they inclined their heads back, albeit shallowly, in greeting.

"Another one for the wish scribes," said Abdul-Aziz, gesturing to Faruq. Both narrowed their eyes at Abdul-Aziz, but the dark-skinned man, who Faruq now saw was not much older than he, harumphed and pulled away from the wall.

"Let's go," he said, his voice gruff. Faruq started after him but stopped and turned back when Abdul-Aziz stayed where he was.

"Come on!" barked the guardsman, just as Abdul-Aziz smiled and waved. Faruq scurried after the first guardsman while the other grabbed Abdul-Aziz by the scruff of his shirt. "All right, your business is done here," he said and shoved the wish scribe's boy back the way he'd come.

Faruq's guardsman took him through the palace's inner courtyard. If the outer courtyard was lavish, the inner courtyard had it beat twice over. The sounds of the outside world fell away to soft conversation, melodic drums and the gentle twang of an oud, but no matter how Faruq looked around, he couldn't find any musicians. He reasoned that they must be hidden away behind one of the silk-curtained tents that lined the perimeter of the courtyard, spaced out between the palm trees.

They traversed a flat, marble bridge over a pool of blue-green water so still Faruq saw his own astonished reflection, as if looking into a mirror, until one of the lilies dotting the water floated by and obscured his face, its aroma light. Such beauty. Such luxury! And they had yet to enter the palace. Women garbed in sheer silk like dancers flitted from tent to tent with golden trays of tantalizing fruit. As they cleared the bridge a woman crossed their path, scenting the air with jasmine and cherries. She gave him a tight smile. Faruq smiled back and reached for a bunch of grapes, but she shook her head, yanked the tray out of his reach, and hurried on to the next tent.

A silk curtain fluttered back, and a man in fine robes of light blue embroidered in gold emerged from one of the tents, followed by a boy in a plain white robe waving a palm leaf. The nearby serving women bowed to him, while the boy hurried to keep up with the man's long strides. As he passed Faruq his dark eyes scanned up and down, appraising, then narrowed under the shadow of his turban. Faruq lowered his gaze to the white tile of the courtyard.

He almost bumped right into the guardsman's back when they finally came to a small door, dark and hidden among the pillars and bulbous arches that made up the inner courtyard's wall. An exchange of nods between his escort and the man at the door and they were let inside. Beyond was a stifling, windowless hallway lit only by white light glowing in brackets along the wall. Faruq reached out to touch one of the lights. His hand passed right through the bluish-white orb and he felt no heat. The guardsman suddenly turned around and glared at him.

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