Chapter 2: Slow Down, Stupid Boy

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"You're a stupid boy," he said.

Faruq blinked. "What?"

"Do you usually go around touching things you have no idea about? I saw your shadow." He waved at one of the orbs. "This is sorcerer's fire. How did you know it wouldn't immediately incinerate your hand on contact?"

"I...I..."

"How old are you?"

"...I'm thirteen."

The guardsman scoffed and shook his head. "Once a wish is made it cannot be undone," he said angrily. "That is the holy covenant between God and the Djinn and—stupid boy," he said again, softer. "It's too late now."

The guardsman moved on and Faruq followed silently after. He did not touch anything else.

The hallway ended in a thick, arched door, tall and split down the middle. All around it a tiled mosaic flashed blue, red, gold and silver in the light of the sorcerer's fire. The guardsman grabbed a brass ring and gave three fast raps and then four slow ones that echoed in the silence left behind. The door clicked, creaked and swung apart.

Faruq caught a glimpse of a room full of tall shelves stacked high with books. Men with tall, feathered turbans and even a few women in bejeweled head scarves sat at desks or lounged in plush chairs, and all wore identical black, lacy masks which covered their eyes and noses, living only their mouths revealed.

Wish scribes.

A man stepped in front of Faruq, his turban a bright royal blue, like the rest. He stared at Faruq through his mask, and his lips pulled back in a knowing smile under his thin, black mustache. "What timing," he said in a voice like wind caught in a narrow corridor. "I have just the wish for you, my young friend. Can you read?"

"Yes, I can," said Faruq boldly, but a small bolt of panic darted through his gut. His father's closest friend was a scholar, and he had spent many an evening teaching Faruq and his elder sister their letters, but Faruq had always struggled, provoking the man's temper. Ahura Mazdaa Faruq, my donkey can read this he would say, or he would lament while looking up at the ceiling: Not even the sense of a fig. Still, Faruq would say whatever it took to get his wish.

"Good," said the wish scribe. "Wait here."

The man ducked back inside in a swirl of white robes, and returned with a small roll of paper.

"Is that my wish?" asked Faruq, making no attempt to mask his excitement. The wish scribe turned up his nose and gazed down at him from behind his mask.

"It is a wish, for a cousin of the King who has paid more than what a hundred of you is worth for the privilege of our services. Now come, let us be on our way."

Faruq should have been surprised, alarmed even, at how quickly everything progressed. After all, there was the rumor of the poor widow with the three young children. The story went that she'd been given the phrase, "I wish to be free of my worries." She came home to find her three children dead, and she killed herself shortly after.

But that was just a story, whereas Faruq had seen old Ayman with his own eyes. Whenever, like stinging insect bites, his doubts and worries about the notorious deceit of the Djinn invaded, he thought of the smug, triumphant look on old Ayman's face when he'd returned to Southmarket to gloat, his belly bloated under his silk robes and his fat fingers glittering with rings. If that old fool's tested wish could turn out to be such a success, surely Faruq's could too.

The wish scribe led the way back through the hallway, and the guardsman brought up the rear. They entered the palace proper, climbing what seemed to be dozens of flights of steps, though Faruq was too dazzled by the spectacle of the palace to keep count.

They walked through smooth, stone archways and along terraces shaded by palms and silk drapes in purple and gold and blue. Through a room with jade statues and art on the walls. Through large chambers full of nothing but sunbeams that spilled in through bell-shaped windows. And dark-bearded guards stood sentinel in every room while cream-robed servants bustled by.

When they passed through a hall with windows that opened onto a menagerie, Faruq's excitement took on a life of its own, devouring what little sense remained in his head. He saw strange and beautiful animals he couldn't name. A giant bird, bigger than he was, with a fat white belly and grey feathers perched in a tall golden cage. The curve of its beak seemed to suggest a mysterious smile. A group of stunning horses, each like they hand been painted alternating black and white by the hand of God, followed him silently with their eyes as he passed. And at the back, a huge and heavy beast, grey and tough skinned with a large and wicked horn growing up from its head. The boy's mouth fell open. The creature was as tall as three men at least.

But he could only catch a fleeting glimpse, for as they walked the wish scribe occasionally gestured to one of the guards, and soon Faruq was surrounded, with two men behind him and two in front. Whenever he tried to stop or slow he received a rough shove. Nevertheless, he foolishly hoped that maybe the wish would be to become a King, and then he would have a menagerie all his own.

After a time, they reached the entrance to a tower, and the wondrous sights of the palace gave way to a curving staircase within a shadowy column of white stone. More guards stood by, spaced out every twenty steps or so. Unlit brackets were set at intervals, and the only light came from many tiny windows. As they ascended Faruq stretched his neck to peer out at the view of the city below, but the wish scribe moved briskly, and Faruq had to keep up or risk another shove. He sighed. He would just have to wait until they exited the tower.

But when at last they emerged, the sight before him wiped out all thoughts of a bird's-eye view. He completely forgot to look around, riveted by the creature towering above him.

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